You might not think about Wi-Fi that much, particularly if your home Wi-Fi network requires only occasional troubleshooting or your smartphone smoothly and automatically connects to Wi-Fi when you’re at home or at work. But like most other things in the tech world, Wi-Fi has its limitations. So the group behind Wi-Fi is announcing a new type of Wi-Fi that will carry the technology into a new era — one where you’ll be able to have the smart home of your dreams, without consuming tons of power or having to recharge all your devices with inconvenient frequency.
The Wi-Fi Alliance, an organization that manages and advances Wi-Fi standards, announced a new form of Wi-Fi which it’s calling Wi-Fi HaLow. HaLow promises to increase the range of Wi-Fi connections while simultaneously enabling lower power consumption. The standard is based on the upcoming 802.11ah specification, and will be used for everything from smart home devices to wearable technology, and connected cars to digital healthcare.
Devices that take advantage of the new standard will not only consume less power, but will be able to transmit a signal farther, and to do a better job of communicating through walls and other obstacles. As Jacob Kastrenakes reports for The Verge, HaLow will offer “an all around better option for smart home and IoT devices, at least if these claims hold up.” He characterizes HaLow as “Wi-Fi’s answer to Bluetooth,” since the standard is expected to end up in fitness trackers, smart home sensors, security cameras, and other single-purpose gadgets.
To achieve that, HaLow will need to “be a better option than Bluetooth,” a technology that the Wi-Fi Alliance is essentially claiming HaLow will be able to match, while offering a longer range and the ability to connect directly to a router. As Kastrenakes notes, consumers should be skeptical of whether the Wi-Fi Alliance can really pull that off — especially since the organization says that it intends to begin certifying HaLow products in 2018. It won’t be until after that that the technology makes its way to your router, your wearable devices, your smart home products, etc.
HaLow will use the 900MHz range, which boasts better reach and penetration than the 2.4GHz and 5GHz range used by the current form of Wi-Fi. The downside is that HaLow won’t be as good as the existing Wi-Fi standard at quickly transferring data. That highlights the fact that HaLow won’t bring a new form of Wi-Fi for browsing the web — an important distinction if you want to understand why there’s another type of Wi-Fi.
HaLow will be used just for transferring small amounts of data infrequently, a key function of smart home devices. As Computerworld’s Matt Hamblen points out, HaLow’s range will be nearly double that of the Wi-Fi available today, but HaLow equipment will initially be certified for up to 18Mbps as the highest data rate. The lowest rates will be just 150Kbps, achieved using a 1MHz channel, and to get 18Mbps, device manufactures will need to use a 4MHz channel. Faster transmissions will come at the expense of battery life, which is often not a compromise you want to make when you’re building a device that needs to stay operational on a single charge for months or years at a time.
The smart home and the Internet of Things are just beginning to take shape in ways that are practical, and the Wi-Fi Alliance is optimistic about the role that HaLow will play in their development — even though HaLow will be competing not only with Bluetooth, but also with less widely-known standards like Zigbee and Z-Wave.
As Brian Barrett reports for Wired, it’s natural to wonder why we need HaLow when most of what it can do is handled pretty capably by Bluetooth, which has become the standard of choice for most low-powered connected devices. The most important answer is that Wi-Fi can connect directly to the Internet, not just to another device, which will become increasingly important as things like wearable devices need to be “untethered” from things like your smartphone.
Unlike Bluetooth, HaLow is looking farther into the future of connected devices, which will be used to build not just smart homes, but smart cities and large-scale connected industrial facilities. HaLow will be able to support thousands of devices per access point, which means easier management of sensors and devices for businesses and municipalities. All of this will take a long time to achieve, not least because despite the industry’s enthusiasm, consumers haven’t been rushing to adopt smart home devices, even high-profile ones like the Nest Thermostat or the Philips Hue line of connected light bulbs.
Will a Wi-Fi standard better tailored to the smart home — one that will enable connected devices to function more reliably, over longer distances, and to connect directly to the Internet — give more people a reason to start building a smart home? As the idea of the connected home, connected workplace, and even the connected car gradually and incrementally take hold, HaLow may be one of many factors that helps make the industry’s dream of the Internet of Things a reality.