Imagination marks 20 years of the Wi-Fi Alliance

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Despite all the world’s problems they say that, in reality, there’s no better time to be alive than today. This statement normally takes into account global IQ, hunger, literacy and life expectancy, but many people would include Wi-Fi in that. Can you imagine buying a portable device such as a laptop or smartphone and not having a Wi-Fi connection built in? Less than 20 years ago, this was the case: if you wanted to be able to get online without a tethered connection you needed to add an external PC card to your laptop.

Tell a millennial that Wi-Fi once wasn’t a standard feature in the phone and they’d probably have to sit down. Then again that handset of yesteryear didn’t have a proper web browser either. (Let’s just not talk about WAP). Indeed, for many people, Wi-Fi and ‘the internet’ are interchangeable as concepts, with most not appreciating that Wi-Fi is simply a wireless method for connecting to the device providing the actual broadband internet access.

Ensigma pre-qualification testing
Ensigma pre-qualification testing

Wi-Fi made a breakthrough when it was integrated into PCs such as the first Apple iMac and soon after than it began to become a standard feature in laptops. This was the final piece of the puzzle for portable computers, allowing users to enjoy the wonders of portability while still being connected to local networks and of course the wider internet.

Sometimes this connectivity dream was taken a little too far. The marketing for Intel’s wireless chipset Centrino platform was infamous for featuring people sitting with laptops in remote locations such as a Roman amphitheatre or even up a mountain, giving the impression that it provided connectivity wherever you were, without any need for an access point. Misleading ads aside, Wi-Fi soon came to be the default way to connect to the internet, especially with the arrival of smartphones.

One of the key reasons for Wi-Fi’s ubiquity in devices is down to the Wi-Fi Alliance™, which on 4 June 2019 is celebrating 20 years of existence. But what exactly is the Wi-Fi Alliance?

Testing times

Essentially, the Wi-Fi Alliance conducts tests that ensure that gives end users the assurance that the Wi-Fi products they buy, will work with their existing or future Wi-Fi equipment.

As its name suggests, the Alliance is a coalition of companies that agreed to come together to ensure that anything bearing the Wi-Fi Alliance logo interoperates. This differentiates it from the IEEE, which is a working group that defines technical standards that define wireless networking on an electrical level, such as the 802.11 sets of LAN protocols. But the problem with standards, as the saying goes, is that there are so many to choose from. Standards are open to interpretation, so companies could produce hardware that technically conforms to the standard but still won’t talk properly to other’s version of the standard. To avoid this scenario the Wi-Fi Alliance was established, and its primary function is to conduct a set of interoperability tests to which manufacturers can submit their hardware.

Ensuring that Wi-Fi equipment works together takes a lot of testing

Once that battery of tests is passed, companies producing Wi-Fi equipment get certification to confirm that their designs offer interoperability and backwards compatibility with other brands’ hardware. This then gives the company the right to place the Wi-Fi Alliance logo on their products, giving end user assurance that the product they are buying will work with their existing or future Wi-Fi equipment, as long as it too conforms.

Searching for harmony

The Wi-Fi Alliance also has two other functions; regulatory and marketing. The regulatory aspect deals with spectrum harmonisation and transmit power. The former is an issue that affects any standard that involves unlicensed radio spectrum. There are variations in the regulations around the world on the use of spectrum and the Wi-Fi Alliance conducts lobbying to ensure that there is as much harmonisation around the world as possible. For example, in Europe, you can use 13 channels at 2.4GHz but in the USA, only 11. If you take your device operating at channel 13 in the UK to the USA it would be operating illegally. And now that 5GHz is commonly used for Wi-Fi this work is continuing. Equally, restrictions apply on transmission power and what may be legal in one locality may not be in another.

The Wi-Fi Alliance has also certified many features that are now common. The Wi-Fi Alliance also developed the security protocols that are now commonly used when setting up a Wi-Fi connection – and also developed associated certification programmes for these. Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), created in 2003 was followed, logically, by WPA2 (2004) and WPA3 (2018), all created in response to the widely covered weaknesses in the original system known as Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP).

Wi-Fi has also developed over the years, offering new features to make it more flexible and user-friendly. For example, Wi-Fi Direct enables two Wi-Fi devices to talk to each other without having a router in between to act as an intermediary, enabling it to rival Bluetooth for some uses. Meanwhile, Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), introduced in 2006 makes it much easier to securely connect two Wi-Fi devices together without having to enter a long password. For example, just press a button on your router and then on your printer and they will connect.

Ensigma interoperability lab
Ensigma pre-qualification interoperability lab has over 100 test devices

This continuing evolution of the Wi-Fi standard is one of the reasons why the Wi-Fi Alliance requires its third function – marketing.

This is there to promote the new and exciting ways Wi-Fi can be used, and how it can continue to be the default connectivity solution for the foreseeable future. It’s also gradually learning to be more user-friendly. For a long time, Wi-Fi was known simply by its IEEE standard, – so 802.11, which evolved from ‘a’ to become widely popular as 802.11b, then 802.11g, then 802.11n. This standard was also known simply as ‘Wi-Fi 4’, and while 802.11ac was not widely known as ‘Wi-Fi 5’, with the latest version, the Alliance is looking to push 802.11ax more heavily as Wi-Fi 6.

This version will help to deal with one of the biggest issues today with Wi-Fi – its popularity. Wi-Fi today is in many ways a victim of its own success. Whereas once a Wi-Fi hotspot was a rare thing, in urban areas you can now barely move for networks radiating from coffee shop, clothes store, supermarket, or mini hotspot created by people’s smartphones. If you conduct a scan at home, you’ll also pick up the networks of all your neighbours, all interfering with yours. Wi-Fi 6 will enable users to cut through that interference and maintain connectivity and performance even in congested signal areas.

The next 10 years

Today, Imagination’s Ensigma division offers a comprehensive high-performance Wi-Fi baseband offering based on 8021.ac with advanced features such as 2×2 MIMO, with industry-leading performance. We also cater for low power solutions with a silicon-proven solution based on GF22FDX.

To acquire Wi-Fi certification Imagination conducts a large number of pre-certification tests in its own labs. We have over 100 test devices of our own, enabling us to be well prepared to obtain Wi-Fi certification. Our Wi-Fi solutions have appeared in many devices such as DAB radios and have been licenced to Tier 1s.

While Wi-Fi has been widely successful over the last 20 years the Wi-Fi Alliance isn’t resting on its laurels. With billions of devices, Wi-Fi clearly won’t be going away any time soon, but its absolute dominance is likely to be challenged by 5G, while on a local level Bluetooth continues to evolve too. Imagination is proud to be a part of the Wi-Fi Alliance and its mission and we look forward to helping it meet the challenge of ensuring that Wi-Fi continues to meet the needs of consumers around the globe.

Benny Har-Even

Benny Har-Even

With a background in technology journalism stretching back to the late 90s, Benny Har-Even has written for many of the top UK technology publications, across both consumer and B2B and has appeared as an expert on BBC World Business News and BBC Radio Five Live. He is now Content Manager at Imagination Technologies.

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