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Looking at the future of wireless technology at CES 2016

The CES 2016 consumer electronics show offers insight into the future of enterprise wireless technology. Here's what IT should expect.

Each January, International CES, the world's largest consumer electronics show, gives us a glimpse into the future...

of wireless technology. CES 2016, held earlier this month in Las Vegas, did not disappoint. From industry trends that amplify Wi-Fi demand to new standards for interoperable connectivity, CES 2016 demonstrated a tomorrow where Wi-Fi is increasingly ubiquitous and essential for businesses of all kinds.

It's a wireless world

For years, CES has pronounced the next wave of both electronics and underlying network technology; in the process, sketching out the future of wireless technology. Wi-Fi-enabled products at CES have morphed from smartphones, tablets and routers to connected homes and automobiles; from smart TVs and door locks to wearables, drones, and myriad "things."

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, established technologies such as smartphones, tablets and TVs will continue to account for roughly half of the segment's U.S. market revenue in 2016. However, innovative products and Internet of Things (IoT) adoption are driving market expansion, with virtual reality (VR) ($540 million in 2016 revenue), smart watches ($1.7 billion), smart home ($1.2 billion) and drones ($953 million) enjoying double-digit revenue growth.

With any luck, the Wi-Fi Alliance's success with global interoperability and enabling programs such as Passpoint will bring convergence to the increasingly chaotic wireless landscape.

While many products announced at CES continue to be aimed at the consumer market, CES has matured into an event of importance for enterprises, as well. Among the new product trends with business impact at CES 2016 were unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), VR goggles, mobile live content streaming and smart automation systems.

Take, for example, the Oculus Rift headset, which could open doors to applications like vocational training. A crop of more powerful drones, such as the Parrot Disco, lets smartphones and tablets watch 1080p HD live feeds from 4K cameras while flying nearly an hour on auto-pilot. And a potpourri of new smart "things" -- from 3D printers and HVAC systems to levitating light bulbs and in-ear biometric sensors -- are emerging to join wireless networks.

Meeting wireless demand

The future of wireless technology embraces soaring connectivity. New connected devices and applications not only escalate wireless bandwidth demand, they drive market growth for innovative network products, services and standards. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that CES 2016 was a hotbed for new Wi-Fi product announcements. Among them:

  • Qualcomm Atheros rolled out Wi-Fi SON (self-organizing networking), an embedded approach to simplifying and optimizing Wi-Fi performance delivered by smart gateways, access points, routers and range extenders manufactured by Qualcomm OEMs such as Airtight, Asus, D-Link, Linksys, NETGEAR and TP-Link.
  • NetGear introduced the Nighthawk X4S AC2600 Smart Wi-Fi Router (R7800), an 802.11ac Wave 2 router boosting rates up to 2.5 Gbps and doubling per-client throughput via 160 MHz-wide channels. NetGear also announced the Nighthawk X4 AC2200 Wi-Fi Range Extender (EX7300), a device that expands the range of multiple Wi-Fi routers up to 10,000 square feet.
  • Linksys launched its new EA9500 Max-Steam AC5400 tri-band router, using 802.11ac Wave 2 to boost data transfer speeds up to 5.3Gbps -- especially useful for carrying streaming 4K video. For those eager to start using multi-user multiple input, multiple output antennas, Linksys routers can be paired with the new AC2600 USB MU-MIMO adapter.
  • D-Link announced a new unified home Wi-Fi network kit with adaptive roaming technology (DKT-891). This kit includes a Wave 2 dual-band extender to connect distant devices at up to 867 Mbps at 5GHz, using enhanced path selection to seamlessly transfer roaming Wi-Fi clients between router and extender. In related news, D-Link announced it has incorporated IFTTT (if this then that) into its mydlink-controlled connected home devices, including Wi-Fi Smart plugs, water and motion sensors, sirens, and a new smart alarm detector.
  • TP-LINK introduced its SR20 smart home router, an AC1900 device that acts as a central hub for connected devices throughout the home by supporting not only Wi-Fi, but also Zigbee and Z-Wave. In related news, TP-LINK announced the Talon AD7200 multiband Wi-Fi router, adding 802.11ad to deliver speeds of up to 4.6 Gbps over short ranges at 60 GHz.
  • Acer announced the TravelMate P648 series, the industry's first notebook to incorporate Qualcomm's Atheros 802.11ad multiband wireless for ultrafast 4K video display and short-range multi-gigabit data transfer.

While these products are geared for the home or, perhaps, small office, they demonstrate that both 11ad and 11ac Wave 2 deployments are underway. It won't be long until the Wi-Fi Alliance starts to test and certify both 11ad and 11ac Wave 2 products, opening the door for enterprise adoption. According to a Wi-Fi Alliance announcement issued at CES 2016, the currently installed base of Wi-Fi-certified products exceeds 6.8 billion. Wi-Fi now connects users in more than 450 million households and 47 million public hotspots worldwide, contributing $222 billion in economic value.

New flavors of Wi-Fi pace future of wireless technology

Of course, Wi-Fi is not the only wireless standard -- nor is 802.11ac (or its predecessors 11n, g, a and b) the only flavor of Wi-Fi. In fact, one of the biggest challenges demonstrated by products on display at CES 2016 is the sheer number of wireless connectivity alternatives. From Bluetooth-LE and Zigbee to Z-Wave and WeMo, alternative approaches are escalating -- along with higher layer protocols that ride over wireless to enable machine-to-machine and IoT applications.

This brings us to arguably the biggest Wi-Fi news at CES 2016: Wi-Fi HaLow. Wi-Fi-certified HaLow (based on 802.11ha) joins Wi-Fi-certified ac (based on 802.11ac) and WiGig-certified (based on 802.11ad) as the newest member of the Wi-Fi-certified networking family.

At CES 2015, WiGig promised to make Wi-Fi connectivity shorter-but-faster by operating in the 60 GHz band -- ideal for same-room multigigabit cord-cutting. At CES 2016, Wi-Fi HaLow took Wi-Fi connectivity farther-but-slower by operating at 900 MHz --ideal for bursty, low-power sensor networks. Importantly, all three technologies build upon the same 802.11/Wi-Fi foundation established by the IEEE and Wi-Fi Alliance over the past 15 years.

With any luck, the Wi-Fi Alliance's success with global interoperability and enabling programs such as Passpoint will bring convergence to the increasingly chaotic wireless landscape. For example, today's Passpoint program focuses on cellular carrier offload and global roaming across public hotspots. But it's conceivable that the same underlying concepts could be applied to new flavors of Wi-Fi -- for example, controlling the Wi-Fi ac and WiGig devices and new Wi-Fi HaLow machines permitted to connect to corporate WLANs and carrier networks, respectively.

As wireless grows, so must convergence

While differences among Wi-Fi AC, WiGig and now Wi-Fi HaLow go well beyond the unlicensed radio band in which they operate, spectrum has a huge impact on the applications that can be effectively supported by each technology. In fact, using both licensed and unlicensed spectrum more efficiently will be critical to enable the explosion of connected devices predicted for IoT.

As Boingo CTO Derek Peterson observed, the industry needs roughly 2000 MHz of spectrum, but has only 900 MHz available in all. "We're short 1100 MHz before we even start," said Peterson. Peterson participated in the CES 2016 session, Gazing into the Wireless Future, discussing a range of factors that are expected to drive wireless technology, from bandwidth to battery life. 

The industry has no choice but to learn to use available spectrum better. "For example," Peterson said, "don't use a 20 MHz Wi-Fi [11ac] channel to send 100 Kbps bursts. That's where alternatives like Wi-Fi HaLow come in. We should be able to adapt, using analytics to enable responsiveness, steering users and devices [with lower bandwidth needs] onto smaller channels."

This suggests that keeping pace with the influx of new wireless devices and applications on display at CES 2016 (and beyond) will require deploying a range of network technologies -- including, but not limited to, Wi-Fi -- to achieve the potential of future wireless technology. As enterprise networking products become more multilingual and self-organizing, the most successful businesses may be those that anticipate and leverage wireless network convergence.

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This was last published in January 2016

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