From nomads to roamers: time for Wi-Fi to evolve with the times

Image credit: Slavoljub Pantelic /

Using Wi-Fi used to be a nomadic experience for users – now it’s all about roaming, but Wi-Fi needs to let go of the old usage model and evolve to support this shift in user behavior.

Sometimes in life we need to let go of things that do not serve us well any longer. A change in circumstances or behaviors forces us to reexamine things so we have a better experience. While this is an existential dilemma, it applies to the physical world and, predictably to the way we communicate.

Take Wi-Fi, which used to be a strictly nomadic experience: you open a laptop, connect to an AP, work, shut the laptop, move, connect to a new AP. Now we know that’s not how we connect wirelessly any longer. People are truly roaming. And we’re depending on the client device to make its own decisions about which AP to connect to, and when to let go. As Wi-Fi has become the most popular connection technology, users take their devices to many networks in the course of a given day — from home to office, to the coffee shop and a convention center. And smartphones switch between Wi-Fi and cellular networks.

What used to be a feature (maintaining a tight connection to the AP) has now become a bit of a bug (the sticky client).

The industry has tried to keep up with truly mobile consumers by implementing techniques such as band steering, AP load balancing, and sticky-client prevention. But these implementations are vendor-specific, and previous generations of the 802.11 protocol were simply not designed with a constantly shifting client in mind.

Wi-Fi itself is in need of an upgrade to support this different consumer behavior. Right now, we have a makeshift approach that lacks robustness and often causes connectivity problems. And that’s bad news for the technology’s brand with consumers and operators alike.

The industry is working on this through multi-stakeholder processes like the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Certified Vantage program. The Alliance’s approach in these initiatives is to specify a subset of features in other 802.11 standards that are useful for client steering, and endorse 802.11 equipment implementing them via certification program. The major industry players have stepped up to endorse these efforts and very shortly, new equipment will likely already come certified.

Here’s an example: suppose you take calls via a virtual service like WebEx or GoToMeeting in the morning while dropping the kids off at school. When you arrive at the office and your phone tries to connect to Wi-Fi, the call likely drops for a few seconds or longer. One feature (amongst many) of the Wi-Fi Vantage program is Fast Initial Link Setup (FILS), which ensures that devices will authenticate and quickly join known enterprise networks, meaning that dropped calls won’t happen in the future.

Or maybe you’ve used a citywide hot-spot network, and when you move around town, your phone needs to be re-approved at every AP. Another feature implemented with Wi-Fi Vantage called Fast Basic Service Set Transition (FT) ensures the device does not need to be authorized again every time you change access points in the same network.

These are simple tools which let service providers better understand their networks, allocate resources appropriately, and provision and authenticate devices simply. These steering and transition mechanisms are great news for users because they mean Wi-Fi is becoming more seamless to access, more seamless to move between different Wi-Fi networks, and more seamless to transition from a Wi-Fi to a cellular network.

This is all good news for frustrated consumers and network operators, but more still needs to be done to keep up with customer demand. Wi-Fi network operators are exploring opportunities beyond 4G offload using Wi-Fi. Mobile operators and cable operators offer service plans that enhance existing services (e.g. from fixed cable to wireless, as used by cable operators) or extend them (e.g. mobile to Wi-Fi, as used by operators like T-Mobile and Verizon). They need to upgrade their Wi-Fi – where they can easily manage traffic and respond to congested environments – to support these services. And as mobile and Wi-Fi services continue to overlap and converge in 5G networks, the integration of both networks will continue to become increasingly prevalent and more complex. Small changes to Wi-Fi’s DNA will drive these improvements to success.

What’s on the horizon? A brand new standard where even more changes to the guts of Wi-Fi make the technology work like cellular, but cost so much less. The 802.11ax standard describes more than 75 new features which will unquestionably make Wi-Fi technology work a lot more fluidly and in line with consumer expectations. Cellular-style scheduling and OFDMA in the uplink and downlink are likely to do away with radio interface traffic jams completely. The first .11ax products – including the first routers and chipsets – have already hit the markets.

The wireless world has been working to keep up with digital mobiles, and we see a future in letting go.

Vijay Nagarajan, senior director of wireless connectivity at BroadcomWritten by Vijay Nagarajan, senior director of wireless connectivity at Broadcom

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