The internet is getting too big for just one kind of Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is on the move.
Wi-Fi is on the move.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Wi-Fi, that thing we only notice when it doesn’t work, is having a bit of a moment. Earlier this week, Apple announced that its new iPhone will be able to use Wi-Fi to connect calls, something that ought to help if you’re in an area with lousy cell coverage. The next day, America’s T-Mobile announced that all new smartphones it sells will be able to use Wi-Fi to make calls.

Wi-Fi has come a long way from its first tentative steps in the 1990s. Over the years, as new specifications have come along, the speed at which data can be transferred over the air has increased more than 1000-fold. It now blankets universities, Starbucks coffee shops and, in some cases, entire cities. But it needs to evolve to as the Internet evolves.

Take it from the top

In 1999, a group of large tech firms came together to form the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance. A year later the group changed its name to the catchier Wi-Fi Alliance after working with a branding company to invent the term Wi-Fi. (Among the rejected options was “Dragonfly.” As in “This cafe offers free Dragonfly.” It sounds silly now, but so does Bluetooth—named for this guy—and we still use that term.)

Quartz spoke to Greg Ennis, one of the developers of the standard that became Wi-Fi and now the VP of technology at the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit that works to create the standards on which all Wi-Fi devices run, to understand where this ubiquitous, indispensable technology goes from here. In a word: everywhere.

Wi-Fi works by using radio waves on the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz frequencies. One—or both—of these is what your wireless router at home uses. Since they are relatively high frequencies, that means they can transmit a lot of information, but their range is limited. The lower the frequency, the larger the range—but the worse the quality, or, in this case, speed.

Three times the Wi-Fi

Now the Wi-Fi Alliance is working on two new specifications—one with much more range and one with much less. Neither one of these will replace existing Wi-Fi. The idea is that as the internet grows—and the popularity of Wi-Fi with it—the technology must remain fit for purpose. WiGig, which will run at 60 Ghz, will be capable of tremendous speeds. But its range will be tiny, and it won’t be able to penetrate walls. The other, to be called IEEE 802.11ah, runs at 900 Mhz and will be able to cover vast areas, but at very low speeds.

Ennis says he sees the low-frequency, high-range Wi-Fi being used for sensor data and industrial applications of the “internet of things.” As the world is increasingly covered in sensors, low-data rate, high-range internet coverage will be instrumental in gathering and centralising the data produced. One application, suggests Ennis, could be in agriculture, where farmers could monitor the soil temperature, moisture, and so on using sensors that feed back to a computer.

WiGig on the other hand is meant for indoor use. Its short range means that it won’t extend beyond one room. But its high data speeds point toward its use: “One of the real focused applications for that is in-room entertainment applications,” says Ennis. That could include things like streaming movies to your dumb TV, or for peripherals, such as Wi-Fi speakers and the like.

Both new standards should roll out by 2016, says Ennis, and products that work with them around the same time. As for the name? “In 1999 there was no name for this technology and we knew we needed a user-friendly name,” says Ennis. “It was a play on the word hi-fi back then. Today, 15 years later, I don’t think anybody has any idea what hi-fi is.”