Hello HaLow: Your guide to the Wi-Fi Alliance’s new IoT spec

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The Wi-Fi Alliance recently announced a new IEEE specification, 802.11ah, developed explicitly for the Internet of Things (IoT). Dubbed HaLow (pronounced HAY-Low), it’s aimed at connecting everything in the IoT environment, from smart homes to smart cities to smart cars and any other device that can be connected to a Wi-Fi access point.

Here’s what you need to know about HaLow.

1. What are the potential advantages of HaLow?

First, HaLow operates in the 900-MHz band. This lower part of the spectrum can penetrate walls and other physical barriers, which means better range than the current 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi bands.

Second, as a low-power technology, HaLow is intended to extend the Wi-Fi suite of standards into the resource-constrained world of battery-powered products, such as sensors and wearables. As analyst Jessica Groopman at Harbor Research points out: “We may be swimming in a sea of connected devices, but most of them can’t hold a charge for more than a day and connecting them to the Internet via Wi-Fi drains their batteries rapidly. And inefficient power consumption isn’t just at the device or battery level. It’s also at the connectivity level.”

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Lee Ratliff

Third, says Lee Ratliff, principal connectivity and IoT analyst at IHS, “Along with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi is native to all major mobile platforms and enjoys widespread consumer awareness giving it an enormous advantage against low-power, wireless incumbents such as ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Thread,” Ratliff says. 

He adds, “If device manufacturers incorporate tri-band (sub-GHz, 2.4GHz, and 5GHz) Wi-Fi chips into smartphones, tablets, home gateways, and other such products in the future, this may be a sustainable advantage that ultimately makes Wi-Fi a top choice for connectivity in both high-performance and low-power applications.”

Finally, “HaLow’s advantage lies in the power of its position in open platforms,” continues Ratliff, “So the majority of those platforms will need to incorporate HaLow before that advantage can be brought to bear on the market.”

2. What are some of the technical issues?

Tim Zimmerman, Gartner vice president and research analyst, says it’s important to note that a 900 MHz solution requires a separate overlay communication infrastructure of access points which, today, would be separate from existing Wi-Fi access points.

In addition, there are international limitations of the 902-928 MHz band, which could cause segmentation of the band in many areas, including Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia.

From an interoperability standpoint, Groopman argues that the Wi-Fi Alliance is taking its successful standard and throwing another horse into the race to compete with other connectivity protocols less power-consuming than Wi-Fi.

While Wi-Fi is certainly the most widely adopted wireless connectivity protocol, it’s not the only one. “And many argue that it’s just not sustainable to support large scale, ubiquitous connected infrastructure, as in smart cities,” she says.

Plus, the 900-MHz band is still being used for garage door openers and baby monitors. “This must be addressed as part of home automation solutions and automated vehicle locator (AVL) systems, pagers, and cell phones—depending on the geography—which may affect commercial applications,” says Zimmerman.

3. What are some of the standardization issues?

Shamus McGillicuddy, senior network management analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, says there are several standardization efforts emerging around IoT. Many companies and independent consortiums have launched their own standardization efforts for creating network and application protocols designed to facilitate IoT.

“Organizations that are getting into the IoT game will have to follow this standardization race very closely,” cautions McGillicuddy. “Some real powerhouse companies are getting involved such as Nest’s (Google) Thread protocol, and Qualcomm’s AllJoyn. I expect we’ll see some consolidation in the IoT standardization world, so that companies aren’t duplicating their efforts. The Wi-Fi Alliance will have to demonstrate to the market why HaLow is the superior option for IoT connectivity.” 

Michele Pelino

Michele Pelino

Forrester analyst Michele Pelino describes the two major categories of standards initiatives as (1) industry groups focused on building and disseminating use cases and promoting IoT in manufacturing, mining, transport, and other heavy industries (such as the Industrial Internet Consortium); and (2) standards bodies such as IEEE, whose members focus on developing and normalizing the technical connections that the applications and services of the IoT are built on.

And, there are some groups who push for the adoption of particular standards, such as the Zigbee Alliance.

4. What are the opportunities for enterprise Wi-Fi vendors?

“I see HaLow as an opportunity for enterprise Wi-Fi vendors to become bigger players in IoT,” says Matthias Machowinski, research director at IHS. “Most Wi-Fi vendors have taken a Wi-Fi-only approach to IoT, which allows them to support the many devices that now have embedded Wi-Fi.”

But, Machowinski argues that Wi-Fi is just one of many options, and it isn’t necessarily the best option for low power, low bandwidth, long distance applications, which are common in IoT. By integrating additional wireless technologies directly on the access points, Wi-Fi vendors can build on their success connecting people on enterprise campuses and extend it to IoT applications.

For reference, enterprises bought about 20 million new access points last year, so that’s a large and recurring infrastructure upgrade/build-out that can and should be leveraged for IoT.

5. What should enterprise customers be thinking about?

“The specific standards focus for each company will depend on how these IoT-enabled products and services will connect to and interface with other connected systems and applications,” says Pelino. “Three processes that firms should acknowledge and execute are device-to-network connectivity, data messaging, and data models.” Pelino identifies device-to-network connectivity (for many embedded products) as the air gap between the remote device and its parent network. That is the first jump to be made. There are various protocols that define radio transmissions, including cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, Zigbee, and Z-Wave.

In terms of data messaging, she stresses that companies need to figure out what format the data will move in, allowing it to best connect to the analytic, data warehousing, and data brokering systems of their organization and of their partners. Examples in this category are HTTP and MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport) protocol.

When it comes to data models, she says, “Data from the IoT comes in many formats and measurements, and being able to consume and digest this data is the crux of value in the IoT environment. Early work on normalizing data taxonomies and models is being done within groups like the Haystack Project.”

6. Is HaLow late to the party?

According to Groopman, the main Wi-fi HaLow issue today is time. The Wi-Fi Alliance won’t begin certifying HaLow products until 2018. That’s an eternity in the world of technological innovation. Meanwhile, the race for lower power connectivity charges on, with new players (and investments by legacy players) surfacing every day.

Also, the imperative to ‘connect, connect, connect’ has left the current Wi-Fi client market with some cultural issues; most notably around inconsistent application of strong, widely-adopted security standards, among other configuration challenges.

Ratliff adds that while low-power IoT is still in its early days, HaLow is already years behind its competitors. Meanwhile, existing low-power standards have time to establish defendable positions in rapidly advancing markets, such as the smart home.

Sartain is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].