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August 1, 2017

How Wi-Fi changed the world

One could even argue that almost every service we interact with now needs Wi-Fi to make it work.

By James Nunns

One of the best ways to tell if a concept has hit public consciousness is if there’s a meme about it. This means a large group of people not only understand the idea, but also appreciate its cultural significance and impact, and feel strongly enough to share it widely – usually through an amusing image.

Therefore, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Updated is always one that makes us smile.


Jokes aside, this simple adaption of a psychological theorem demonstrates the role Wi-Fi plays today. According to our own data, 87% of smart devices within the home are connected by Wi-Fi, so it’s no wonder we say we can’t live without it. The freedom it has afforded is immense, changing how people interact, socialize and form relationships. Wireless connections and Wi-Fi are now central to how governments work with technology and information exchange, and even finance and commerce. One could even argue that almost every service we interact with now needs Wi-Fi to make it work.


20 life-changing years of Wi-Fi

IEEE802.11, the Wi-Fi standard that most people use today, started out with humble aspirations to connect devices in a specific unlicensed spectrum (1-10Mbps). The 802.11a standard was released to the public in 1997 and its biggest benefit has been the untethering of our lives. Could we even imagine how far this would take us? Much like mobile phones, digital boundaries were suddenly no longer set by the length of cables. Working from home was made more enjoyable as you took emails from the couch; or started a business venture from the kitchen table.

The IEEE team (of which ARRIS is a proud member) has been constantly developing new iterations since. New versions, suffixed ‘b’, ‘g’, and ‘n’, came fast – but ‘ac’ was the game changer. This added a range of enhancements (160MHz channels, 8 total spatial streams and the use of MU-MIMO) that allowed, among other features, multiple devices to be connected at once – with faster speeds, and most importantly, video capabilities.

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Routers were liberated from home offices and closets shortly after to become home fixtures; and more devices were made ‘smart’. The importance of design then became apparent, and remains a big talking point today – look no further than discussions comparing Amazon’s Echo and Show, Google’s Home, and Apple’s HomePod. Connected smart devices will only continue to flourish once consumers are happy to display them on their shelves.

Then the Wi-Fi itself got smarter, and continues to do so. Cloud-based architecture is enhancing functionality and the user experience, and contextual awareness will ensure devices are prioritized to make the smart home run smoothly – from prioritizing a professional video conference over a game of Minecraft, to diverting bandwidth to essential security systems to avoid any downtime.

But that’s not the end of the road. The new ‘ax’ standard will become the go-forward high-speed Wi-Fi technology in 2018. It will take advantage of unlicensed spectrum (2.4GHz and 5GHz) and deliver benefits such as four times more bandwidth capabilities, range improvements, and improved congestion management. The technology that ‘ax’ employs (OFDMA, or orthogonal frequency-division multiple access) is similar to that within DOCSIS®, meaning greater integration opportunities between the two technologies to bring new services into the home.


The (spectrum) road ahead

Looking ahead, the adoption of the next generation of Wi-Fi will become increasingly important if we’re to continue adding devices onto our home network.

More importantly, the opening of Wi-Fi spectrum will enable even more innovation. This is something the Wi-Fi Alliance, of which ARRIS International plc is a contributor, is advocating for. The particular opportunities lie in sub-6GHz as well as the 60GHz range, with the latter potentially providing homes with the speed and capacity promised by 5G.

There have been attempts to achieve this (the ‘ad’ standard was designed to leverage the 60GHz spectrum) but range and cost have been a barrier. However, work is now being done on the next version (‘ay’) which may be the final push needed for an all-wireless HDMI 8K or 4Kp60 Stereoscopic VR experience.

This would require new architecting as there is a shorter range, but with the gigabit capacity a lot of hyped technology such as VR can become more commonplace in the home as we’ll no longer need the cumbersome HDMI cables running back to computers and consoles. Interestingly, this is one of the key things holding back wider adoption of VR. Remember: we’ve become accustomed to an untethered life.

In just 20 short years, 802.11 has fundamentally changed the way we live, interact, do business and much more. With the advancements coming down the line there’s no telling how our world will further evolve over the next 20 years. While there are still challenges to overcome, we’re excited to take them on and deliver an even more connected experience to people everywhere.

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