5 highlights in the future of Wi-Fi
We have reached the point where Wi-Fi is mandatory in many common places. Schools, malls, offices, and even airplanes have it. It usually works fine. But it can be better—and in the coming years, it will get better.
Wi-Fi will be faster, more secure, and better at maintaining connections as users move about, and network capacity will increase significantly. Wi-Fi will even be a way to gain access to 5G networks. We'll do more with it and in more places.
Improved Wi-Fi speeds
The latest hardware supports the newest standards in Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax. The new standard includes significant improvements in network speed and bandwidth, both of which address pressing business needs. Within Europe, IDC estimates that the Wi-Fi 6 market will grow from $61.75 million in 2019 to $1.6 billion in 2024.
The increase in theoretical speed for traffic—9.6 Gbps, up from 6.9 Gbps in Wi-Fi 5—is important but not the main point. Wi-Fi 6 takes the same amount of radio spectrum used by earlier generations and divides it into a larger number of smaller channels of communication, each of which works faster than earlier Wi-Fi. The average number of devices on a Wi-Fi network is always increasing, and Wi-Fi 6 increases the number of devices each router or access point can communicate with simultaneously.
It also includes new ways to allow the network on the other side to communicate in the most efficient manner. In this way, it is designed to benefit dense installations the most, both busy enterprises and crowded public spaces.
Of course, your network connection is only as fast as its slowest component, so if you have slow Internet service, there is only so much a faster router can do. But it may still help and allow you to take better advantage of a faster Internet connection, if one is available.
Improved Wi-Fi security via WPA3
The security in most existing Wi-Fi hardware is based on a standard called WPA2 (for Wi-Fi Protected Access), which was finalized more than 15 years ago. Inevitably, vulnerabilities were found, most vendors fixed them, and most users applied the fixes. But WPA2 is not a strong foundation for security anymore.
For example, a moderately talented attacker could crack the encryption and monitor traffic on a WPA2-PSK network by mounting a dictionary attack to learn the password. In many current real-world scenarios, including shops and restaurants, the merchant doesn't want to make customers go through the trouble of entering a password, so there is not even the pretense of encryption on the network. When there is a password, legacy Wi-Fi allows anyone who knows the password to decrypt all traffic on the network.
The good news is that the newest hardware, including all hardware certified as Wi-Fi 6, supports a new security standard called WPA3. It fixes what was broken in previous generations of products. Password-based networks are now secure against dictionary attacks, and even when the password is known, each user has unique and unknowable keys to encrypt traffic. WPA3 is more secure even in cases where there is no network password thanks to a standard called Opportunistic Wireless Encryption (OWE), which is also known as Enhanced Open in WPA3 configuration. A network without a password could be more secure than a network with a password using the old wireless standards!
WPA3 is part of the new wireless standards implemented by all companies, but the author of many of the most important standards in it is Dan Harkins, a fellow at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company.
Wi-Fi integration with 5G
5G mobile networks are necessary to slake the ever-growing thirst of consumers and businesses for network bandwidth. In many ways, the hardest part of building a 5G network is building the much larger number of cell antennas it requires. But there are other ways.
5G is designed so that the edge of the network, the RAN (radio access network) in network terminology, can be just about any kind of physical network, not just conventional cellular equipment in your phone and the telco cell. Specifically, a Wi-Fi 6 network can operate as a 5G RAN, connecting Wi-Fi 6 clients to the 5G core.
When the right systems are in place to coordinate the movement of devices between networks, users will be able to move between Wi-Fi and cellular networks seamlessly. As an example, this means that if you are on a Wi-Fi call on your home or business network and you walk outside to get in your car and drive, the 5G core will know that the same device moved from one RAN to the other and your call will not drop. It's even possible to imagine phone service being sold, at very low cost, with only Wi-Fi for the RAN.
This capability is another good reason for enterprises to move forward with Wi-Fi 6 deployments, as they may provide some access to 5G, when it becomes available.
One of the great advantages cellular networks have over Wi-Fi is roaming. Users can move from network cell to network cell, even to different network providers, and the network knows how to pass them on without losing the connection. But when you go out of range of your Wi-Fi network, your connections will drop, even if you automatically connect to a different network.
But now roaming is coming to Wi-Fi. The Next-Generation Hotspot (NGH) initiative is a convergence of Hotspot 2.0 (formerly known as Passpoint) and WRIX (Wireless Roaming Intermediary eXchange). Hotspot 2.0 has been around for many years and is implemented in some hardware, but it is not implemented by many networks. Hotspot 2.0 allows the user to designate a third-party authenticator, something like how OAuth 2.0 is used by websites to let you use your Google or Facebook credentials to log in. WRIX has also been around for some time and describes methods by which Wi-Fi service providers exchange business and technical information. Both are meant to facilitate roaming. Both become much more useful as Wi-Fi and 5G converge.
NGH has advantages for mobile carriers too, by helping to seamlessly offload traffic from their networks to Wi-Fi networks, where the cost is lower.
More Wi-Fi spectrum
The Federal Communications Commission recently decided to approve an enormous new allocation of radio spectrum, in and around the 6 GHz band, for unlicensed use, principally Wi-Fi. This huge expansion, 1200 MHz of new spectrum, will allow for new applications of wireless devices with high bandwidth and low-power consumption.
In high-density environments, such as apartment buildings, stadiums, and airports, the load on existing Wi-Fi spectrum can be both measurable and noticeable. Without new spectrum, the problem would only get worse as new hordes of IoT devices go online, many with demanding applications such as video.
The new 6 GHz frontier allows Wi-Fi to keep up with 5G for high-bandwidth applications, reinforcing a competition between the two technologies to the benefit of customers. Combined with the roaming services mentioned above, carriers have new opportunities to improve enterprise service on both Wi-Fi and 5G.
The FCC will set new rules limiting the amount of power put out by the new classes of 6 GHz devices, along with other characteristics. Certification of such devices is important so that customers know that they will work together, and the Wi-Fi Alliance has announced such a program, calling the new standard Wi-Fi 6E.
The European CEPT (Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations) is working on a plan to release 500 MHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band, with a decision expected in the first quarter of 2021.
Aruba's Chuck Lukaszewski, Eldad Perahia, and Dan Harkins contributed to this story and other coverage.
- WPA3: How and why the Wi-Fi standard matters
- Security checklist for working at home
- Wi-Fi 6 and 5G: Delivering seamless connectivity experiences
This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.