WiFi is also chasing the high density, neutral host enterprise network

Support for unlicensed and shared spectrum, and low cost, multi-operator small cells, will allow LTE and 5G to encroach on WiFi’s territory in enterprise wireless and urban hotzones. But WiFi is moving in the other direction, taking on many characteristics of cellular technologies with enhanced quality of service, security and other features.

As the lines between licensed and unlicensed spectrum blur, WiFi will evolve alongside cellular and be part of the broader 5G platform, say its supporters – and a good example is its rising support for hyperdensity, a key goal of the cellular community. This will be supported by the next iteration of the IEEE 802.11 standards on which WiFi is based (802.11ax is particularly targeted at delivering gigabit data rates in dense environments), and more immediately, by new additions to the WiFi Alliance’s certified technologies.

The Alliance has announced phase two of WiFi Vantage, an umbrella brand for the most important components of the platform. Phase one included certification for 802.11ac and the hotspot roaming and sign-in technology Passpoint. Now certification is extended to Agile Multiband and,  later in the year, Optimized Connectivity.

Like many developments in cellular networks (see above), these features are heavily geared to high density networks, and to high quality enterprise systems which are often managed by third parties. Operators and specialized service providers can gain greater control over WiFi connections and  their quality, and by requiring Vantage compatibility from manufacturers, they can gain that control, and potentially move into managed services that span WiFi and private cellular.

“Managed networks are kind of becoming the new normal,” VP of marketing, Kevin Robinson, told LightReading.

Agile Multiband helps ensure that a user has the best available signal by working against the ‘sticky client’ situation where devices stay linked to a single access point even if it is not providing the best connection. The technology helps determine the best AP, band and channel steer the device to that connection. Agile Multiband also re-authenticates devices with WPA2 security sufficiently quickly for a user to continue a VoIP conversation while moving between APs without dropping the call.

Optimized Connectivity speeds up the discovery of available APs and simplifies initial authentication and IP layer connectivity. It also reduces management traffic between a device and an AP.

By making it simpler for users to receive a strong signal and to move around within a large, dense urban or enterprise network, these technologies help create a cellular-like experience.

Edgar Figueroa, CEO of WiFi Alliance, said: “WiFi Vantage provides a better user experience with WiFi devices in rapidly changing environments, such as when moving to a new gate in an airport or stepping onto a busy subway platform.”

Philippe Lucas, SVP of strategy, architecture and standardization at Orange, added in the same press release: “WiFi Vantage brings new tools to improve the user experience in managed WiFi networks. It provides a standardized approach to deliver consistency, more manageability and higher performance to WiFi devices from service providers for managed home networks, airports, stadiums and other scenarios.”

Several WiFi vendors support similar capabilities for enterprise or home network use cases, but in a proprietary way. By contrast, Agile Multiband is based on the IEEE 802.11k, 802.11v, 802.11r and 802.11u standards; and Optimized Connectivity is based on the IEEE 802.11ai and 802.11k standards. There may be trade-offs associated with moving away from highly optimized vendor-specific implementations but for larger operators, this may well be worthwhile to be able to reduce cost and remain flexible about vendor choice in future.

Meanwhile, in a new white paper, the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) says that WiFi will be a key component in three critical 5G use cases – smart cities, IoT sensor networks and safety/surveillance. CEO Shrikant Shenwai took rather a hopeful view of the likely role of WiFi in official standards, given that the first 3GPP specs will be frozen later this year. He said: “While plans to roll out 5G networks are well on their way, the industry still needs to agree upon the standards for the technology before 2020. The WBA has put together this report to highlight the significant impact that WiFi is having on the definition of 5G.”

More realistic is the view that, in practice, operators of all kinds will deploy a mixture of technologies and define 5G more broadly than the actual radio standards. So Shenwai added that the WBA was studying what “we as an organization can do to bridge the gap between licensed and unlicensed technologies within this timeframe [to 2020]. The WBA will continue to develop its 5G strategy to work towards ensuring WBA and WiFi networks are ready and enabled to meet the needs of a 5G-based world.”