There are plenty of blockades between now and the connected-device future that’s been so long on the horizon. One of these is Wi-Fi, which has limitations that keep connected devices from connecting quite as efficiently as they could. Now, there’s a plan in place to fix it.
The Wi-Fi Alliance, the organization that dictates and advances Wi-Fi standards, has announced the latest iteration of its increasingly indispensable technology. Called HaLow, it promises to double the range of standard 2.4GHz Wi-Fi connections, while also doing a better job of penetrating walls, floors, and other obstacles that can make your Wi-Fi sputter and skulk.
It’s Wi-Fi for smartwatches and Internet-enabled coffee makers and whatever other connected appliance might suit your deranged fancy.
It manages this deftness and range by operating on the 900MHz band, a chunk of spectrum that’s better suited for small data payloads and low-power devices than the relatively intensive, battery-straining 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands on which most current Wi-Fi routers operate. To cut through the numbers and specs and standards for a moment: It’s Wi-Fi for smartwatches and Internet-enabled coffee makers and whatever other connected appliance might suit your deranged fancy.
“For a consumer, you might imagine someone who wants to deploy a water sensor in their basement to detect flooding or a motion sensor at the end of their driveway to warn them of someone arriving late at night,” says Kevin Robinson, Wi-Fi Alliance vice-president of marketing. “In both of these cases, Wi-Fi HaLow will deliver power-efficient connectivity to the home access point (and the Internet) despite the challenging environment caused by obstructions in the device’s path or ranges involved.”
At this point you might be wondering why we’d need such a thing, when so much of what we’ve just described is already capably handled by Bluetooth, the connectivity tech of choice for most low-powered, online devices. You’re right to wonder! There are a few potential answers, the most important of which being that Wi-Fi connects devices directly to the Internet, not just to another device. That may not seem so important now, but it will be critical as wearables, in particular, strive to become truly untethered. Eventually, connected devices need to transition from Pinocchio to real boy. HaLow should help that process.
Also, unlike Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Halow’s ambitions extend quite a bit further than than your living room.
“Wi-Fi HaLow is well suited to meet the unique needs of the Smart Home, Smart City, and industrial markets,” says Edgar Figueroa, Wi-Fi Alliance President and CEO. “[It] expands the unmatched versatility of Wi-Fi to enable applications from small, battery-operated wearable devices to large-scale industrial facility deployments.”
That’s partly because, Robinson pointed out, in addition to the various security and interoperability features found in the Wi-Fi you know, HaLow will also share its ability to “support thousands of devices per access point.” That means a business that requires huge numbers of environmental monitoring stations across multiple facilities would have a simple, integrated way to keep track of them.
All of this depends on a few factors that won’t be decided for (sorry!) a number of years. It will take until 2018 for the Wi-Fi Alliance to begin certifying HaLow products, after which the tech needs to make its way into your router, then into your wearable. That’s all going to take a significant amount of time, during which Bluetooth will also continue to iterate and improve. Not to mention that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, while arguably the most recognizable standards encroaching on the IoT space, are just two of several connectivity options. (Ever heard of ZigBee and Z-Wave, for example?)
That may be why, although HaLow should enable devices to be more helpful than our current slate of IoT hits and misses, connected device companies seem to be treating it with some degree of caution.
“As an open platform, SmartThings continuously monitors the standards environment,” says Dan Lieberman, Head of Research and Standards for the smart home company Samsung purchased in August of 2014, “and will support the technologies that are in use by our customers.”
Maybe that will be Wi-Fi HaLow. Maybe it won’t. There’s a bit of chicken-and-egg thing at play here, further muddied by the assumption that we’re on an irrevocable march toward always-connected everything (the Wi-Fi Alliance nods optimistically to internet-capable “vacuum cleaners and door knobs” in its Wi-Fi HaLow press release). The thing is, that’s not necessarily the case. According to Forrester Research, only 13 percent of US online adults use one or more smart home device, and that’s long after the release of relatively break-out products like the Nest Thermostat and Philips Hue connected light bulbs. Simply put, even if Wi-Fi HaLow works as advertised, will there be an Internet of Things waiting for it to connect them by the time it finally proliferates?
The Wi-Fi Alliance thinks HaLow will solve exactly the kinds of problems that are keeping homes from smartening up. Besides which, there’s something to be said for the power of trust. “People know and love Wi-Fi,” says Robinson, “and Wi-Fi HaLow devices certified by Wi-Fi Alliance will give them confidence to adopt this new technology.”
Still, if everything goes according to plan–at least, the Wi-Fi Alliance’s plan—we could be just a few years away from connected devices that reliably connect, directly to the Internet, from as far away as you need them to. It’s a start.
This story has been updated to include comment from the Wi-Fi Alliance.