The Wi-Fi Alliance recently announced the long-awaited Wi-Fi HaLow standard for products incorporating IEEE 802.11ah wireless networking technology (HaLow is pronounced just like the title of the popular video game from Microsoft).
HaLow extends a flavor of Wi-Fi into the 900 MHz band, which provides greater range than the pre-existing 2.4 GHz standard, provides better connectivity through barriers such as walls and promises extensibility in the development of low-power Internet of Things (IoT) applications, such as Smart Home sensors and wearables.
HaLow is the natural next step in the evolution of IoT. “IP on Everything” has been the mantra for IoT evolution for quite a while now, and HaLow has the potential to exponentially extend that trend. What HaLow facilitates are battery-operated Wi-Fi IP devices that “just work,” which has been a key goal in IoT development for many years. IP devices enable us to overcome one of the major barriers to entry for the Smart Home.
The need for physical-layer protocol bridges and gateways, and the upfront costs associated with them (in terms of price, simplicity and usability), has long been a sticking point for retailers, service providers and consumers alike. HaLow offers the promise of removing a bridging device, once manufacturers’ consumer network equipment include HaLow capability in their product lines.
HaLow promises to optimize battery life in 900 MHz-connected devices not tethered to real power supplies. Other technologies have promised the same in the past, with mixed results, so I am cautiously optimistic that the work being done by the Wi-Fi Alliance and IEEE with 802.11 ah will become widely adopted as the key communication standard.
There are many reasons for the optimism. Here are a few:
- Developers should see no difference between other IP devices and HaLow devices. The same communication stacks in devices, browsers and apps should work seamlessly.
- IP-based communication is the most reliable and widely proliferated communication network protocol in the world.
- Mass-market wireless router companies constantly evolve their technology to support the latest IEEE standards for IP-based communication. This trend could continue with HaLow.
- Mass-market adoption will quickly drive 802.11 ah radio prices down, making it a supremely attractive choice when building a new “thing.”
But there also are a few reasons for caution:
- There are trade-offs that come with low-power operation; mainly, that requisite sleep cycle could make for less responsive devices. There is a sweet spot between power and responsiveness that has been elusive in the industry, and it remains to be seen how HaLow implementations will strike that balance.
- Here we go again, another standard… and HaLow is not the full solution. There is still no common dictionary of understanding to ensure that like devices operate in a uniform way: A light from company A should be controlled exactly the same way as a light from company B, for example. HaLow does not yet seem to have a data model to enable this. Thus far, it appears to be a reliable way to transmit and receive messages over IP for low-power devices, but that doesn’t address larger IoT interoperability issues.
- Adoption will take some time. The makers of the consumer network gear are very keen to keep prices down; every penny they spend must make sense. Without a critical mass of devices working with HaLow, that sense may not be apparent.
- There are more and more products today using flavors of connection technology that do not have IP in their names — ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth, INSTEON, etc. That’s an awfully crowded field of non-HaLow products already in operation, and they aren’t just going to disappear overnight.
Despite these cautions and drawbacks, the arrival of HaLow is exciting. It’s a step in a smart direction that builds on existing technologies to broaden the possibilities that anything and everything can be connected through a common world-wide standard — just like our televisions, laptops, phones and tablets are today — the importance of which cannot be understated as IoT evolves.