Tackling WiFi challenges

A major challenge is to implement networks with the infrastructure needed to meet escalating capacity demands.

Read time 4min 30sec

There has been a renewed interest in WiFi recently, as wireless connections to the Internet multiply, increasingly encouraged by key role-players in the public and private sectors.

The use of WiFi has long been advocated by the BYOD (bring your own device) movement, which continues to stimulate the use of privately-owned smartphones, digital cameras, tablet computers and digital audio players in business - all of which require Internet connection.

The delivery of WiFi-enabled devices is thus expected to grow exponentially in 2014, placing increasing emphasis on the technologies underpinning the development of WiFi networks.

One of the most significant challenges in this regard is implementing networks with the infrastructure necessary to meet burgeoning capacity demands. Currently, there seems little consensus when it comes to addressing the problem. This means although WiFi technologies are advancing - and will continue to be the source of innovation - the danger exists that they will be applied in different ways by diverse vendors.

Heave ho

Against this backdrop, a significant 'push' into the market of new technologies can be expected, such as those based on the yet-to-be-ratified 802.11ac standard.

While 802.11ac may well provide a slew of benefits such as higher throughputs in the form of data rates and higher bit densities per packet, the question remains as to whether, in the face of growing end-user demands to broaden the scope of their WiFi networks, the technology will be successful in meeting expected capacity benchmarks.

The challenge will collate around three key areas: network design, implementation and management.

With increased pressure on a growing number of organisations - including potential service providers and government institutions - to build their own wireless networks, it is inevitable that multiple WiFi networks will evolve.

Will they be able to co-exist effectively? Competition among networks operating side-by-side will most likely result in degraded performances on all networks. How network designers deal with this issue will be fundamental to the success of WiFi in future.

Off the beaten track

There are also implementation roadblocks to overcome. These include the need for effective machine-to-machine communications in industrial and other wireless-enabled environments. In future, for example, BYOD users will have to compete with building management systems such as air-conditioning monitoring systems, elevator management systems and many others all 'speaking' on the same WiFi network.

A complicating factor is the dissimilar way in which building management systems communicate with WiFi networks compared to - for instance - a BYOD in the process of downloading 'app' data.

Research shows more than 30 billion devices will be wirelessly connected to the Internet by 2020. This is central to the 'Internet of things' concept. It is defined as a dynamic global network infrastructure with self-configuring capabilities, based on standard and interoperable communication protocols, where physical and virtual 'things' have identities, physical attributes and virtual personalities.

These devices use intelligent interfaces and are seamlessly integrated into the information network. The common denominator for access will be WiFi technology.

One of the more significant developments in the WiFi arena is the advent of 802.11n, a standard expected to offer greater network performance, more range and improved reliability. Network designers and managers are challenged to use this technology effectively.

Research shows more than 30 billion devices will be wirelessly connected to the Internet by 2020.

One important advantage available to them will be the ability to co-locate and manage WiFi networks in much the same way as is now common in the cellular network industry, where carriers piggyback one another to optimise capacity and/or coverage.

How will this work? WiFi networks based on 802.11n will use multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) technology to employ several antennas to move multiple data streams from one place to another. Instead of sending and receiving a single stream of data, MIMO can simultaneously transmit three streams and receive two. In addition to allowing more data to be transmitted during a given period, the technique can also increase range.

Another technology incorporated into 802.11n is channel bonding, which can simultaneously manage and co-ordinate the use of two separate non-overlapping WiFi channels. This technique also increases the amount of data that can be transmitted.

To limit WiFi network interference, network designers will have to optimise these techniques by creating 'virtual networks' that will become more prevalent, especially as mobile operators move to use WiFi networks for 3G offload rather than employ costly LTE technology for this purpose.

A change of mindset is key to the creation of ubiquitous WiFi networks. Up to now there've been WiFi networks owned by buildings or organisations. WiFi network ownership needs to be seen in the same light as cellular network tenure: it's not important whose brand is associated with the physical network, but it is vital to seamlessly facilitate end-user access to the Internet with the co-operation of all players.

Andy Robb

Technology specialist at Duxbury Networking.

In his role as CTO, Andy Robb is Duxbury Networking's chief technologist and technical advisor, responsible for the company's strategic technical direction. Robb oversees quality of service delivery and product management. He holds a number of industry product-related qualifications as well as continuing with further tertiary qualifications. Prior to becoming CTO, Robb held a variety of positions at Duxbury Networking, including technical manager, product manager and senior systems engineer. He has been with Duxbury Networking since 2000.

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