The Future of Wi-Fi Things

By Tom Hollingsworth, Blog Contributor
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I can remember a time long ago when wireless networking was about freedom. It was all about setting up a few wireless clients to be able to roam around a building or home far and wide. The first time I ever saw an 802.11 card being tested was one of my co-workers using it to work from a park area in the middle of one of the buildings I worked in. I thought the idea of having no wires was neat but that it wouldn't take off as long as people still needed a desk.

Flash forward 15  years and I couldn't have been more wrong. Today, wires are the exception to the rule. Even at my desk, I have most of my devices connected via Wi-Fi instead of Ethernet. The freedom is still there for me, even if the device never leaves my desk. But the use of Wi-Fi in my house has changed as it has in many other businesses.

Wireless isn't just about far-ranging freedom now. It's about device density. Instead of me picking up my laptop and walking down the hall to use it in a classroom I'm now more concerned with how many devices I can bring with me. It's more than just one laptop. Now, my laptop, phone, watch, tablet, and even more personal devices need to connect to a wireless network. As a tech person, I have a large number of things with me at all time that wants to upload data, get control settings, and update me on the latest news and statuses.

The Things To Come

More than the personal devices we use actively every day are the devices that are coming online that we don't interact with regularly but control our very environment. For every wireless laptop, there is a legion of the Internet of Things (IoT) devices that you don't realize are using your wireless network. Thermostats, light bulbs, smart outlets, doorbells, and more are being installed daily.

But did you know about the wireless networks we don't see? The networks created by cable box digital video recorders (DVRs), smart electrical meters, and other home entertainment systems. Those networks compete for the very same airtime that your other smart devices and computing devices want to use as well. And while you have a measure of control over your own personal devices, that ability tails off as the devices become more simple and easy to use. Smart thermostats have very little programmability from a network perspective. Smart outlets don't even have an interface to use outside of a mobile app.

Designing For Things

The IoT devices in your home and workplace represent the biggest shift in the future of Wi-Fi coming in the next 5 years. It's changing the way that wireless networks are designed. Now, instead of trying to build for coverage over a wide area, we're building smaller networks with higher density. These high-density deployments used to be for high traffic areas like arenas and conference centers. Now, every school hallway has enough device traffic to justify a very high-density deployment. And as the number of smart infrastructure devices increases, the number of clients connected to these networks increases as well.

Wireless professionals have to be smart about how they handle smart devices. Solutions like air-gapped networks like those from cable companies and power companies only work when the airspace is relatively free. But in an enterprise, all channels and frequencies are going to be very heavily utilized. That means all those smart devices will be on your network. And you need to plan for them. You need to be aware of the requirements and the capabilities.

It also means that device vendors and other departments of your organization need to be more aware of the load that those devices can put on the network. Gone are the days of thinking that any wireless device will do. Now, the frequency and utilization specs need to be known at a minimum. Well-built networks shouldn't be taken down by devices that are misbehaving. Likewise, a well-planned network shouldn't be compromised because a cheap new fire alarm panel needs 802.11b data rates in 2018.

Wireless professionals are going to be challenged by the future of wireless. Whether it comes from new protocols or a dearth of devices using existing networks, you need to be flexible and ready to build the network your clients need. Even if those clients are devices that no one uses frequently. Every device will matter in the future.