By Alan C. Brawn CTS, DSCE, DSDE, DSNE, DCME, ISF-C
Let us begin by stating the obvious. Wireless is all around us at every turn and every nook and cranny of our everyday lives. Wired magazine described a new era of wireless technologies under the umbrella of the Internet of Things, where “the most mundane items in our lives can talk wirelessly among themselves, performing tasks on command, giving us data we’ve never had before.” Subject matter experts predict that The Internet of Things (IoT) will become a world where up to 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020; or, the equivalent of 6 devices for every person on the planet! Can we all say wireless? If not, then we should learn to say it. Let’s begin with a bit of history and technology for context and then press on to what the future holds.
At its foundation, wireless is based on electromagnetic waves and being able to send and receive them in some manner. The theory of electromagnetic waves was predicted but had not yet been proven from the research of James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday. Putting a theory that was not yet fully understood into practice, in 1878 it was David Hughes who first transmitted radio signals over a few hundred yards by means of a clockwork keyed transmitter. It was in 1888 that Heinrich Hertz actually demonstrated the existence of electromagnetic waves and that electromagnetic waves traveled through space in straight lines, could be transmitted, and could be received by an apparatus. Viola, the birth of the wireless age.
In practice it is the continuous electromagnetic spectrum and the energy involved in it that defines it. This wireless energy can be radiated and made to pass through space, air and even some solid objects. The best news for us as consumers of all things wireless it that it still works when places and things are moving relative to one another. Here are some examples of electromagnetic energy that can transport information:
- Radio waves
- Infra-red light
- Laser light
The actual term “wireless” hearkens back to the early days of radio with a radio transmitter and a receiver. Today that term is expanded to refer to any type of application that does not use wires to transfer information and communicate. Modern examples are cellular networks and of course the broadband internet.
From an IT, AV, and digital signage perspective it boils down to wireless communication and networking, wireless sending and receiving, and even wireless energy transmission. Let’s take a look at where we are and where we might be heading.
The elephant in the room is Wi-Fi that has become the defacto standard for local area networks that enable portable computing devices to connect easily to the internet and to one another. Wi-Fi levels are accepted standards and marked as IEEE 802.11 as a basic protocol to be built upon and added to as bandwidth is tweaked and increased as needs and applications dictate. The 802.11 family goes back to
1997 with the first wireless networking standard, but 802.11b was the first widely accepted one, followed by 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac. This begs the question of what is Wi-Fi?
A Wi-Fi network uses radio waves and communication across a wireless network a lot like two-way radio communication. Here’s what happens:
- A computer’s wireless adapter translates data into a radio signal and transmits it using an antenna.
- A wireless router receives the signal and decodes it. The router sends the information to the Internet using a physical, wired Ethernet connection.
- The process also works in reverse, with the router receiving information from the Internet, translating it into a radio signal and sending it to the computer’s wireless adapter.
Wi-Fi communications transmit at frequencies of 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz. This frequency is considerably higher than the frequencies used for cell phones and televisions. The higher frequency allows the signal to carry more data.
- They use 802.11 networking standards, which come in several flavors:
- 802.11a transmits at 5 GHz and can move up to 54 megabits of data per second.
- 802.11b is the slowest and least expensive standard. For a while, its cost made it popular, but now it’s becoming less common as faster standards become less expensive.
- 802.11g transmits at 2.4 GHz like 802.11b, but it’s a lot faster — it can handle up to 54 megabits of data per second.
- 802.11n is the most widely available of the standards and is backward compatible with a, b and g. It significantly improved speed and range over its predecessors. 802.11n can achieve speeds as high as 140 megabits per second. It can transmit up to four streams of data, each at a maximum of 150 megabits per second, but most routers only allow for two or three streams.
- 802.11ac is the newest standard. 802.11ac is backward compatible. It is less prone to interference and far faster than its predecessors, pushing a maximum of 450 megabits per second on a single stream, although real-world speeds may be lower.
- Other 802.11 standards focus on specific applications of wireless networks, like wide area networks (WANs) inside vehicles or technology that lets you move from one wireless network to another seamlessly.
Many might think that Wi-Fi is “old hat” but the truth is that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Stuart Taylor is a Managing Director in the Service Provider Transformation Group at Cisco and he recently wrote an article on the top developments that we will see in Wi-Fi in the not too distant future. He points out that from a mobility point of view, there are now more mobile subscribers than inhabitants on the planet and Wi-Fi will play an import role in all of this expansion alongside and in addition to the cellular experience. His research shows that the number of public hot spots will increase almost 8-fold over the next four years to cover 1 out of every 20 people on the planet. Taylor suggests that Wi-Fi is becoming more like the mobile cellular experience and with the seamless authentication and experience from spot to spot promised by Hotspot 2.0, and we will be able to roam to other Wi-Fi networks, like we do on cellular. By increasing number even mobile carriers are allowing customers to make calls over Wi-Fi instead of the mobile network.