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Wi-Fi: Where are we now and where are we going?

Friday, September 27th 2013

Wireless internet technology has set us free. We know Wi-Fi has brought an end to the days when accessing the web meant being tied to a cable connected to our phone line, but that’s only the start.

Not only is Wi-Fi helping to greatly improve internet connectivity in rural communities, it’s also bringing vital services like healthcare to residents in some of our most isolated communities. What’s more, technological advances are making Wi-Fi more accessible and reliable, paving the way for a huge increase in uptake over the coming years.

We’re only beginning to realise - and take advantage of - the benefits of wireless technology. In years to come, it will be behind everything from the energy networks that power our homes to the household appliances that we use to store and prepare our food. And with scientists and myriad companies working on new uses for Wi-Fi, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Several of the most noteworthy wireless innovations are explored in this paper, but it’s exciting to consider that the future holds a plethora of new developments that we can’t even begin to imagine yet.

There is no doubting the popularity and widespread usage of Wi-Fi among consumers, businesses and public sector organisations alike. According to market intelligence firm Strategy Analytics, 439 million households worldwide - equivalent to one in four homes - have installed Wi-Fi networks. Adoption is expected to surge over the coming years, with the technology set to be used in almost 800 million homes by 2016 [1].

The growth in Wi-Fi has coincided with - and been driven by - the massive rise in prevalence of smart mobile devices, from smartphones and tablets to laptops, wireless games consoles, digital cameras and more. The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), a global industry body focused on pushing forward the next generation of Wi-Fi connectivity that counts AT&T, BT and Cisco among its board members, illustrates the key role mobile devices have played in boosting Wi-Fi usage. It says smartphones are now the most popular way for people to connect to Wi-Fi hotspots, overtaking laptops [2]. In fact, devices like the Apple iPhone are responsible for 40% of hotspot connections, while laptops and tablets make up 39% and 17% respectively.

Now that we’ve whetted your appetite, read on for more about where we are and what the future holds...

Demand, demand and more demand

It’s clear demand for wireless internet connectivity is still far from reaching saturation point, fuelled, at least in part, by our appetite for the latest smartphone or tablet.

A record 225 million smartphones were sold in the second quarter (Q2) of 2013, according to global technology research firm Gartner, up by 46.5% from Q2 2012 [3]. Tellingly, worldwide mobile sales as a whole only increased by 3.6% in this period.

This trend for growth in wireless devices echoes the tablet market, which surged by 75% year on year in Q4 2012, with shipments climbing to an all-time high of 52.5 million [4]. Surprisingly, tablet purchases also rose by a massive 74% on the previous quarter, demonstrating the rapid rise in popularity of devices like the Apple iPad. Now, that’s what we call growth...

Demand for smartphones and tablets - and thus Wi-Fi - will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, as more and more users recognise the value of being able to connect to wireless hotspots. By 2016, market research, analysis and advisory firm, International Data Corporation, predicts sales of smart, connected devices - including PCs, media tablets and smartphones - will reach 1.84 billion devices, more than double the figure recorded in 2011 [5]. This equates to an annual growth rate of 15%.

With so many wireless-enabled gadgets set to be in circulation in the coming years, Wi-Fi will play an increasingly important role in keeping us connected through a wide range of devices.

Wireless internet technology will have to evolve to keep pace. Not only can users look forward to faster speeds, but coverage will also improve - a trend recognised by the WBA, which as recently as last year revealed that 43% of firms in the telecoms industry became more “bullish” about their future plans to invest in Wi-Fi [2].

This expected level of spending is only likely to climb further over the coming years. As coverage rises and more people are able to connect to Wi-Fi networks, the benefits of the technology will become ever clearer. Wi-Fi connectivity already offers ease of use to owners of wireless-enabled devices and new opportunities in sectors consumers haven’t even thought of yet, including healthcare and even the environment.

By allowing business users to get online wherever they are, Wi-Fi will boost productivity and have a positive effect on the national economy. One company set to take advantage of the productivity benefits offered by Wi-Fi is leading UK regional property consultant Bidwells, which deployed a wireless network across 12 offices to support the extensive use of laptops, iPads and iPhones. Delivered by cloud-controlled Wi-Fi, routing and security firm Meraki, the Wi-Fi solution has brought about a cultural change at the company by freeing employees from their desks. Nick Haynes, IT Manager at Bidwells, explains:

“Meraki has enabled a new ‘work anywhere’ culture, giving people the ability to drop in to any office, stop by someone’s desk or visit the coffee lounge and keep working on a laptop [6].”

Bidwells’ Cambridge headquarters originally had an ad hoc collection of wireless access points, while other offices had no wireless connectivity. Thanks to this rollout, property agents can visit clients across the country before calling at their nearest regional office and logging on to the network via laptops or Apple iPhones, thus boosting their productivity.

How and where are we using Wi-Fi?

In the UK, Wi-Fi coverage has shot up as communications providers such as BT, Sky and Virgin Media ramp up their rollouts. With tens of millions of people passing through areas served by Wi-Fi networks on a daily basis and demand ever increasing, it comes as no surprise that usage is so high.

How and where are we using Wi-Fi?

BT’s global Wi-Fi network comprises more than eight million hotspots, five million of which are in the UK alone. Of these, more than 543,000 are situated in the Greater London area. The Greater London Wi-Fi network was put through its paces during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, when an estimated 50% of the 170,000 spectators visiting the Olympic Park each day were using wireless-enabled devices [7]. There’s no question that London 2012 was well and truly the first social media Olympics with such high take-up amongst fans that, at one point, the IOC had to request tweeters to limit their output during a crucial bicycle race through London [8].

Another example is Sky’s The Cloud, which provides Wi-Fi to partners including pubs, coffee houses and eateries, and sees an estimated seven million people pass through its network every day. Combined, users connect to its UK hotspots for more than 200 million minutes per week [9].

Current levels of coverage are impressive, and are only set to become stronger over the coming years. Despite this, it seems Wi-Fi still offers huge untapped potential as a means of providing internet access in public spaces. Ofcom data shows there are now 16,000 Wi-Fi access points in cafes, transport hubs and other public areas across the UK; but intriguingly, users prefer to rely on their mobile provider when it comes to connecting to the web on the move. Around 25 times as much data is downloaded over mobile networks as via Wi-Fi hotspots, indicating the unexploited opportunity for public Wi-Fi to meet our ever-growing thirst for data anywhere and at any time. Ofcom speculates that this trend could be down to the sometimes complex process of logging on to Wi-Fi hotspots, but adds: “This may change as new technologies enable more seamless access [10].” Encouragingly, Deloitte, the global consultancy firm, says 43% of smartphone users see Wi-Fi as a means to avoid breaching monthly data allowances [11]. So we may indeed be reaching a turning point.

There are numerous advantages to using Wi-Fi rather than a mobile data connection, from improved battery life to removing the risk of users exceeding the data caps on mobile contracts. A study conducted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that when transferring data, the energy consumed by Wi-Fi is “significantly smaller” than either GSM or 3G [12]. Data limits are another pressing issue, particularly as super-fast 4G mobile services become more widely available. In 2012, 4G connections generated an average of 19 times more traffic than non-4G connections [13]. Unless 4G customers have sizeable (or unlimited) data allowances, many will need to take full advantage of Wi-Fi to ensure they do not surpass their monthly cap and incur a charge.

Fast-forward several years and demand for wireless technology will have climbed to levels that seem scarcely imaginable even in today’s ultra-connected world. Cambridge Wireless, an organisation made up of more than 300 companies with expertise in wireless networks and related solutions, sees a future in which 50 billion everyday devices could be connected to each other, with wireless technologies able to create an online digital presence for “any number of physical objects” [14].

Exponential growth… what does this mean for consumers?

Wi-Fi adoption is already huge and companies in the Wi-Fi sector are making significant strides towards maximising the potential of the technology as they prepare for an exponential rise in demand for wireless connectivity. The WBA reveals some operators are seeing as much as 75% of all traffic in the home being carried over Wi-Fi networks, compared to only 5% outdoors. The WBA insists out-of-home Wi-Fi-based internet access can only be expected to climb over the coming years, particularly as it becomes easier to log on to public networks [15].

Most noticeable for consumers today are improvements to the hardware that keeps them wirelessly connected. Companies deliver regular updates, with BT’s latest wireless router - the BT Home Hub 4 - featuring smart dual-band technology designed to identify interference and automatically select the strongest available channel [16].

Hardware manufacturers have also begun launching the first wireless routers supporting 802.11ac, the next generation of Wi-Fi standard from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Cisco describes 802.11ac as being “like the movie The Godfather Part II”, explaining: “It takes something great and makes it even better [17].”

A faster and more scalable version of 802.11n, this combines the performance of a gigabit Ethernet connection with the freedom of wireless. It allows for more channel bonding - a computer networking arrangement that combines two or more network interfaces for increased throughput - from the maximum of 40MHz offered by 802.11n to 80 or even 160MHz. This results in respective speed increases of 117% and 333% over the previous standard.

The future is fascinating

Wireless technology is already fulfilling a wide range of functions, but it offers many more uses that are only just starting to be adopted. From bringing broadband connectivity to isolated communities to allowing greater interoperability between the machines upon which we rely, wireless connectivity has the potential to dramatically improve our daily lives and the world around us. With Cisco predicting a future in which Wi-Fi is as secure and easy to use as mobile, it’s easy to imagine myriad ways that adoption and functionality can grow even further [18].

Wi-Fi as a rural broadband solution

When it comes to innovations in the Wi-Fi sector, enhanced hardware is only scratching the surface. Many providers are using the technology to bring faster speeds to communities that are beyond the reach of fixed-line broadband networks. A prime example is eXwavia, which has rolled out a fixed wireless broadband solution to Wales covering parts of Anglesey, Bodedern, Clwyd, Holyhead, Powys and the Vale of Glamorgan. Vast swathes of these areas were left struggling with slow or non-existent broadband (Ofcom rating them as among the worst in the UK when it comes to fixed-line broadband performance), until this service was launched [19] [20].

Wi-Fi as a rural broadband solution

The good news is Welsh residents and businesses have been clamouring to sign up for the Welshpool-based provider’s wireless service. Managing director Annette Burgess says: “Demand for this technology delivery in rural areas is higher than the ability to install.”

For rural communities, the improved connectivity provided by Wi-Fi offers benefits beyond the ability to stream videos, send emails and access social networks. The technology also makes it easier for people to work from home, allowing them to remotely access corporate networks, send and receive large files and conduct video conferences. This is an important consideration for rural residents who may be based some distance from the office. According to mobile network operator EE, Cumbria’s Northern Fells - one of the most rural regions in England - contains the highest concentration of home workers in the UK [21].

Wireless internet technology has even been used to boost tourism in some rural locations. For instance, in the coastal West Dorset town of Lyme Regis, the local development trust has developed the UK’s largest community-owned Wi-Fi network to support the popular Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. Utilising technology pioneered in Spain that uses long-distance directional Wi-Fi antennae to link base stations over several miles, the network allows festival-goers with smartphones to view geological maps of the famous Jurassic coastline. In addition, users can download an ‘augmented reality’ app that scans the local area, highlighting points of interest [22].

Wi-Fi in the healthcare sector

It is all too easy to view Wi-Fi merely as a means to get people online. However, the technology has huge potential to provide services to us that many of us can’t even imagine at this stage. For example, in healthcare, a modern hospital ward can boast numerous pieces of equipment that communicate via Wi-Fi, from wearable wireless devices (WWDs) and smartphones to infusion pumps and sensors. These help healthcare professionals to monitor their patients without having to be at their bedsides, potentially increasing the number of people they can look after at any given time. Highlighting the growing prevalence of the technology within this field, the Wi-Fi Alliance believes use of Wi-Fi in health, fitness and medical applications will increase by 39% from 2011 to 2016 [23].

Wi-Fi in the healthcare sector

The benefits of healthcare providers using Wi-Fi are clear when the many facets of the technology are taken into account. Wi-Fi provides proven, reliable performance and delivers the secure transmissions that are vital to remote ‘telehealth’ applications.

What’s more, WWDs allow for greater mobility and are already playing a key role in improving patient care. A study published in leading medical journal ‘The Lancet’, conducted by a team of US scientists, found that the use of wireless monitoring in heart failure patients can reduce the need for hospital admissions by 39%. Some patients involved in the trial were given an implanted wireless device measuring the pressure within arteries that connect the heart and lungs. Those fitted with the device were less likely to be admitted to hospital than patients who relied on recording their daily weight and self-reporting symptoms [24].

Wireless technology also allows people in healthcare facilities to quickly attract the attention of a nurse or doctor - either at the patient’s own will or if their condition deteriorates and they are unable to do so. Bluetooth and cloud-based real-time locating system provider 9Solutions has developed a wearable device that acts as a sophisticated form of nurse call button, allowing patients to be tracked - and to call for help - anywhere within the healthcare facility. By saving each user’s personal activity profile, the device can automatically send an alarm if these activities differ noticeably [25].

Enterprise IP video solutions firm VBrick recognises the many benefits enjoyed by healthcare facilities that improve their wireless coverage. A universal wireless network can eradicate paging and messaging ‘blackspots’, potentially speeding up response times in the event of a crash or other emergency. Wireless technology also allows for the creation of a ‘wire-free bedside’ at which the patient can be monitored at all times, even when on the move. Furthermore, by allowing audio and video content to be streamed to certain areas within a building or campus, wireless technology allows healthcare professionals to effectively monitor multiple patients in real time across several wards [26].

US hospitals are among the earliest and largest adopters of healthcare-based Wi-Fi solutions. Highlighting this trend, data published by the Wi-Fi Alliance reveals that US healthcare facilities deployed more than 500,000 Wi-Fi infrastructure endpoints - or access points - in 2010, marking a year-on-year increase of 50%. Casting its eyes over the global market, New York-based market research and market intelligence firm ABI Research foresees a surge in shipments of Wi-Fi technology to healthcare providers, with sales expected to reach .9 billion in 2014. With increasing numbers of hospitals looking to speed up recovery times by offering patients the mobility afforded by Wi-Fi technology, usage of WWDs is also set to explode. ABI says the prevalence of these wearable devices in healthcare facilities will rise from 1.67 million in 2010 to more than 294 million in 2015 [27]. By 2017, one in five WWDs will be used within the healthcare sector [28]. Also in the US, several hospitals take advantage of wireless technology developed by UK-based company Plextek that gives healthcare professionals the ability to monitor electrocardiogram data while allowing patients to roam throughout a wide indoor area, rather than restricting them to their beds. Operating in a dedicated medical frequency band, the system is able to simultaneously monitor almost 200 patients across a single facility [29]. In this way, Wi-Fi is helping patients in their recovery and improving their mobility.

Closer to home, wireless connectivity has also proved vital to ensuring patients in remote rural communities are able to access the healthcare services they require. In Lancashire and Cumbria, eight hospitals are involved in a stroke services pilot scheme that allows any one of 15 stroke patients to consult physicians from home using broadband technology. Patients that reach hospitals outside of normal hours can be diagnosed by a consultant using a mobile screen known as a ‘telecart’ located at their bedside.

“We are using technology to take the stroke specialists to the patient, rather than moving the patient long distances, around rural areas, to where the specialists work,” explains Paul Davies, consultant stroke physician at North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust [30].

Using Wi-Fi to save energy: The rise of “smart” grid technology

Smart grids are electricity networks based on digital technology that supply power via two-way digital communication, allowing providers to monitor, analyse and control usage and delivery. They are being developed to meet global demand for efficient energy usage - and Wi-Fi has a vital role to play in fulfilling this goal. Wireless technology provides an array of options to smart grid operators, including - perhaps most importantly - a way to link the devices that compile data from thousands of household smart meters (devices that record electrical energy consumption) with the back office computer systems of utilities companies. As a proven technology, Wi-Fi fulfils the needs of many application scenarios involved in smart grid management.

Using Wi-Fi to save energy

Although power grids across the world have served their purpose for so long, they are often overtaxed and in urgent need of modernisation. Since 1982, peak demand for electricity in the US has surpassed growth in transmission by almost 25% each year, driven by the rising population, larger homes and more power-sapping gadgets and household appliances. Consolidated Edison, a US energy company serving the New York metropolitan area, says its network is put under great strain during heat waves due to the increased use of air conditioning systems. Several days of hot weather in a row can create stress on - or even overload - electric equipment [31]. The record heat waves that hit much of the eastern US in summer 2012 led to rolling blackouts that left around three million people without power and utilities companies struggling to reconnect 45% of the region [32]. Despite this, the energy sector’s spending on vital research and development - needed to make the first steps towards future innovations - is among the lowest of all industries.

Smart grids provide the answer, with a US Department of Energy report - prepared by Litos Strategic Communication - predicting that smarter power networks will “spur the kind of transformation that the internet has already brought to the way we live, work, play and learn”.

The energy networks of tomorrow will offer major environmental advantages and reduce power outages, with Wi-Fi playing a major role in delivering these sizeable benefits. The need to modernise is clear. While electricity failures may not be commonplace in the developed world (in the US, the electricity system is 99.97% reliable), they have a huge detrimental effect on the economy when they do occur. Indeed, partial interruptions and total outages cost America at least 150 billion dollars every year - the equivalent of 500 dollars for every man, woman and child in the country. Given the scale of the problem, smart grids connected via Wi-Fi have a huge role to play in meeting the energy demands of the next generation [33].

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is a concept in computing that describes a world in which everyday objects can connect to the web and identify themselves with other devices and appliances. It's expected to make our lives easier, produce substantial economic benefits and even reduce our impact on the environment by enabling a huge degree of interoperability between different devices.

The Internet of Things

Also known as the ‘Industrial Internet’, the ‘Internet of Things’ is a term coined to describe connectivity between physical infrastructure and devices. The name was first used by British technology pioneer Kevin Ashton, Co-Founder of the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to describe a system in which the physical world and the internet are connected by ubiquitous sensors [34]. The technology required to deliver this level of connectivity is generally referred to as Machine to Machine (M2M).

A prime example of the Internet of Things in action is LG’s range of Smart ThinQ appliances, which includes a Wi-Fi-connected refrigerator capable of keeping track of the food and drink it contains and sharing this information with smartphones. Based on a family’s demographic, weight goals and other factors, the fridge can then suggest recipes and even connect with other smart appliances; for instance, preheating the oven once a recipe has been selected. The refrigerator is controlled via smartphone and an inbuilt touchscreen display [35].

However, Cisco’s Chief Technology Officer Padmasree Warrior argues that the Internet of Things is about much more than giving intelligence to household appliances. “This isn’t just about having a fun conversation about your refrigerator, coffee machine or toaster talking to you, it’s about deploying a sensor on a manufacturing floor that enables an enterprise to be more efficient,” he explains [36].

M2M technology offers advantages across numerous sectors. The Carbon War Room, a Richard Branson-founded organisation that leverages the power of entrepreneurs to deliver climate change solutions, and US mobile network operator AT&T say the incorporation of these technologies will help companies boost their profits by reducing waste and helping them to use energy, resources and time more efficiently.

What’s more, the M2M industry is expected to be a growth market in itself, supporting other companies along its value chain - a series of activities performed by a firm in a specific industry to deliver a product or service - and benefiting various other sectors, including IT. In this way, a move towards the Internet of Things is set to drive revenue and create new jobs [37].

Using agriculture as an example, business strategy advisory firm the Boston Consulting Group and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, an organisation that seeks to build a more sustainable world through ICT, claim M2M technology could save the industry 1.6 gigatonnes (or 1,600,000,000 tonnes) of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2020.

Systems that enable farmers to accurately measure how much their crops need irrigating and fertilising will cut emissions significantly, while wirelessly connected monitoring equipment means governments can crack down on the destruction of rainforests. Significant potential for emissions abatement is also presented by technology that decreases the volume of land required to raise livestock and lowers their methane output [38].

Future technology

In the technology sector, new innovations and advances are constantly being worked on as research and development departments attempt to keep pace with consumer demand for improved performance. Recognising that the Wi-Fi services of today are by no means the finished article, companies are striving to improve everything from the speed of data transfers to the reach of existing wireless propositions.

Using spectrum ‘white spaces’ for broadband delivery

In the UK, some future innovations are already being tested on a small scale. One such example is ‘white space’ technology, which works by utilising unused ‘gaps’ - or white spaces - that exist in bands reserved for the delivery of digital TV services. BT, which expects the number of broadband ‘slow spots’ to drop to just 3% of UK households by 2017, successfully trialled the technology on the Isle of Bute in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland, and most recently extended the pilot scheme to St Newlyn East in Cornwall [39].

Using spectrum ‘white spaces’ for broadband delivery

As a means of broadband delivery, white space technology offers speeds of up to 8Mbps, with BT able to connect ten farmers in Kilchattan Bay on the Isle of Bute. Chris Gibbs, Director of Insight, Innovation and Futures at Openreach, BT’s local access network division, says white space solutions could augment rather than replace existing copper broadband networks.

“Although it has the same characteristics as copper - the further you go the worse the signal gets - it goes a bit further, and that’s the advantage,” he explains [40].

Ed Richards, Chief Executive of telecoms regulator Ofcom, is among the leading industry figures who believe in the potential of white spaces to bring broadband to rural areas [41]. He predicts the technology will produce “very exciting innovations, while also making use of prime spectrum that would otherwise lay fallow”.

Fast, faster, fastest: Wi-Fi delivered via ‘T-rays’

One of the most commonly cited concerns about relying on Wi-Fi as a true alternative for fixed-line broadband is the issue of slower speeds. As fixed providers continue to make significant steps in boosting headline speeds, scientists are working on ways to ensure Wi-Fi does not get left behind.

Scientists at the Tokyo Institute of Technology succeeded in breaking the record for wireless rates, transmitting data at 20 times the speed of the best commonly used Wi-Fi standard by making use of an uncharted chunk of the electromagnetic spectrum. The unregulated ‘T-ray’ band - located between the far-infrared and microwave regions of the spectrum - potentially contains huge swathes of bandwidth that can be utilised for data transmission. By using this type of frequency, band speeds can reach 3Gbps.

At the heart of the T-ray system is a 1mm² device called a resonant tunnelling diode (RTD) designed to disperse waves in the terahertz band - that’s 10,000 times the frequency your average FM radio station transmits on [42]. Although the research shows that the technology is still some way from being commercially viable, the development of the RTD appears to have brought the delivery of ultra-fast wireless internet via T-rays closer than ever before [43].

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