Arguably the most habit-changing and beloved networking innovation of our lifetime, Wi-Fi is a bubble threatening to burst under the weight of its own popularity.
Originally developed to allow multiple computers to share access to the internet, the Wi-Fi lure of "free spectrum; no strings attached" is driving every imaginable type of handheld device to embed the technology, as users demand Wi-Fi access at home, in the workplace and in public venues. Yet, as more and more content is poured into Wi-Fi networks, the technology is now struggling to keep pace.
Next-generation Wi-Fi technology, 802.11n, is widely viewed as a panacea for the current limitations. A tremendous boost to Wi-Fi, 802.11n increases the capacity of the technology to hundreds of megabits per second from 54Mbps today. This is achieved by ganging multiple Wi-Fi radios together in a single Wi-Fi device. At challenging locations where the higher data rates are not possible — for example, at the far ranges or in noisy environments — the extra Wi-Fi radios are used to strengthen the signal and extend its reach.
This all sounds appealing except for a nagging blind spot — interference caused by neighbouring devices that operate in the same unlicensed spectrum.
What's the problem with 802.11n?
Speed isn't a common Wi-Fi complaint. Reliability and consistent coverage are the real problems and interference is the culprit. For Wi-Fi to become the utility people expect at their fingertips, it must operate like a wire in the air.
Wi-Fi interference comes from a myriad of things, such as neighbouring Wi-Fi networks, microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, cordless phones, even treadmills. This interference causes Wi-Fi to thrash, forcing down the data rate to the point where the only thing you can do is cruise the web.
802.11n exacerbates this problem. With 802.11n there are now multiple Wi-Fi signals being transmitted in all directions, each of which can be interfered with before reaching their destination. The reverse is also true; multiple radios in each 802.11n device make it a more potent interferer than its predecessors.
Recent technical innovations, however, are proving to be effective in working around interference. Similar to an internet router that picks the best path for every packet by monitoring the performance of all its available paths, a smart beam-steering system monitors the radio frequency (RF) environment and adapts the direction and the shape of the transmit beam to avoid interference.
This technology focuses Wi-Fi signals, like a flash light, towards the intended destination and away from the direction of strong noise. By constantly picking the highest-quality paths available, this transmits at the highest data rates reliably, avoiding transmission errors.
What's the Wi-Fi hurry?
Small- and medium-sized businesses have been looking to adopt Wi-Fi in a big way but haven't taken the plunge because of their concerns over Wi-Fi's reliability, cost and ease of use.
In a recent survey of more than 500 small- and medium-sized US and European businesses, Forrester Research found that more than 52 percent had no plans to adopt Wi-Fi. Over 36 percent said reliability was the most important factor in their decision, or lack of decision, citing high cost as the second most important factor. This also explains why the current penetration of wireless LAN into the enterprise is only about 15 percent, according to the Dell'Oro Group.
Ironically, two of the major tenets of the Wi-Fi religion have been the technology's low cost and ease of use. But, for businesses, Wi-Fi has been anything but cheap and easy.
Installing a single access point at home may be fairly straightforward, but installing a network of access points is not. IT staff members don't have the time to perform lengthy Wi-Fi site surveys and RF planning every time there's a change.
Automating the installation of Wi-Fi access points and the configuration of user devices is essential for moving Wi-Fi forward into the larger under-served swathe of the enterprise market.
Propelled by devices like the iPhone, which effectively puts a computer in your hand, Wi-Fi is poised to become the de facto on-ramp to all broadband wireless technologies at home, at work and in public venues. But Wi-Fi must move from a technology of convenience to a dependable and ubiquitous utility. Until then, it remains a prison of promises.
Selina Lo is president and chief executive of Ruckus Wireless.