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Eyes on the prize

Two years on from his first appearance in Land Mobile's Big Interview section, the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Edgar Figueroa speaks to Sam Fenwick about his organisation’s recent work and the push for spectrum for licence-exempt use in 6GHz

Readers with a good memory may recall that I first interviewed Edgar Figueroa, CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance (a not-for-profit global organisation that works to promote advances in Wi-Fi technology and standards) back in our November 2016 issue. At the time, the main topic of conversation was WiGig (which uses wide channels in the 60GHz band to achieve data rates of up to 8Gbps, with low latency at distances of up to 10 metres), as the Wi-Fi Alliance had recently launched its certification programme for the technology. Returning to the present day, Figueroa says the alliance has recently launched the second incarnation of the programme, which “brings some of the features that the market was waiting for”, including seamless session handover.

He adds that “it’s been a slower ramp, just because many of the use-cases and many of the deployment scenarios are still being [determined]. Interestingly, it’s got a foothold in outdoor deployments, outdoor point-to-point, fixed line alternative scenarios, but there’s renewed interest in doing more with that, with opportunities in bringing additional backhaul services.”

Waiting for the dominoes to fall
However, the majority of our conversation covers three topics: the push for spectrum in 6GHz – which is linked with the second topic, namely the economic study that the alliance commissioned from Telecom Advisory Services (TAS) that estimates the current annual global economic value of Wi-Fi at $1.96 trillion, and projects this figure will exceed $3.47 trillion by 2023; while the third topic is the alliance’s decision to change the naming conventions for current and future Wi-Fi technology generations.

Starting with the first, Figueroa notes that while Wi-Fi “is carrying the majority of the world’s [mobile] data traffic, we haven’t had any increase in spectrum pretty much since the 1980s”, and that “spectrum availability is still a challenge”. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US has proposed rules that would make up to 1,200MHz of spectrum available for use by licence-exempt devices in the 6GHz band (5.925-7.125GHz), Figueroa says there is still a long way to go before this additional spectrum is released, and that as the point “when the market opens up is when the same device can operate in the US, in Europe, in Asia, and in the [rest of the] world, the US is one of a series of dominoes that need to fall before that spectrum issue for Wi-Fi is [over for the long term]”.

One factor that makes 6GHz such a rich prize for Wi-Fi is that it has similar propagation properties to 5GHz, and the Wi-Fi Alliance expects that “many of the devices out there with the antennas that they have will be able to be re-tuned to operate in 6GHz. The opportunity is tremendous because depending on the region, this could double the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi.”

Figueroa adds the Wi-Fi Alliance isn’t just excited about how extra spectrum in 6GHz could address the spectrum crunch issue, but also by the potential for it to “catalyse innovation [that] we haven’t imagined yet, so things like augmented reality, virtual reality – really demanding [applications like those] could be more feasible with that spectrum”.

Money talks
Turning to the economic study (which estimates that Wi-Fi contributes $54bn in economic value to the UK economy, rising to $71bn by 2023), Figueroa says: “It really focuses the discussion on how we can future-proof the vibrancy that Wi-Fi provides to the economy through more spectrum allocations and favourable spectrum policy.”

He adds that Wi-Fi has played an “understated” and “somewhat under-appreciated” role in networks and the economy, respectively, and through this study the alliance hopes its contribution will be more recognised.

What’s in a name?
Moving to the last main topic – the Wi-Fi Alliance’s work to make sure that the industry as a whole understands its new naming conventions (Wi-Fi 5 for 802.11ac, Wi-Fi 6 for 802.11ax), Figueroa says part of the thinking behind it, and the introduction of iconography that tells mobile device users which generation of Wi-Fi their connection is using, is to allow “people to really appreciate and demand the latest Wi-Fi, because people just expect all the Wi-Fi is the same”.

He adds: “[Currently, they] just don’t know if [their] shiny new £1,000 [device] has the latest Wi-Fi, and then when they go to a pub or a coffee shop and their experience isn’t what it should be, their phone isn’t telling them that it’s because the network they’re on has an inferior connection, but it should.”

Of course, I could hardy interview the CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance without discussing 802.11ax (sorry, Wi-Fi 6) in some detail. “Currently, there are some vendors that are going out early with implementations of Wi-Fi 6 and that’s perfectly normal,” says Figueroa. “We’ve seen this with every generation of Wi-Fi – some vendors go out early. When that happens, it’s a ‘user beware’ situation. Usually, once Wi-Fi Alliance has a certification programme and the industry has agreed on what the core set of features is that will define [the] Wi-Fi 6 experience, the vendors will be able to retrofit their devices and certify them to support all those features. That’s happening right now, but we expect that our certification programme will ensure interoperability, and that will be available for the market [in the] second half of next year.”

He adds that in the short term, the Wi-Fi Alliance is focused on “making Wi-Fi even easier” and improving the end-to-end user experience, hence its work around network intelligence and flexibility, load balancing and steering devices to the best network/channel/frequency domain. Figueroa expects that the alliance “will continue to be focused on that for a little bit longer”.

He says even prior to Wi-Fi 6, customers are going to see improvements thanks to Wi-Fi EasyMesh solutions that allow easy deployment of multiple access points, which all work as a cohesive unit to address coverage and provide a good experience throughout the coverage area. Once Wi-Fi 6 arrives, Figueroa says we can expect better performance from networks that are operating on top of each other in the same physical location and in “very congested areas”, or when a user is very far away from an access point.

Wi-Fi in the 5G era
With 5G deployments expected to begin in earnest next year, I couldn’t resist asking Figueroa how he expects Wi-Fi’s role to change in the 5G era.

He expects that Wi-Fi will continue to carry the bulk of mobile data traffic even when we have 5G. “In fact, today Wi-Fi really does a lot of what 5G is targeting. The positioning for Wi-Fi will be even stronger in the 5G era just because we’ll have Wi-Fi 6, [which] operates in a way that’s a lot more akin to how 3GPP technologies work, with scheduling, similar uplink and downlink provisioning, that sort of thing. The role for Wi-Fi will continue to be very complementary, if not in many instances primary.”

Figueroa adds that there is “still quite an opportunity” in the area of integrating Wi-Fi and operator networks – “not just cellular but any kind of managed network, so one of the things we’re interested in is co-operation with those communities to make sure we are evolving our requirements to be fit for purpose. We probably still have some work to do to make sure that Wi-Fi can seamlessly integrate into those environments.”

Returning to the topic of network intelligence, Figueroa says there are “a number of small players that are trying to bring AI-type capabilities to [the management of Wi-Fi networks]. None of that is standardised yet, but it’s something we’re keeping an eye on. We don’t have any initiatives around [it], but it’s a very interesting space indeed.”

Another technology that is on Figueroa’s radar is Li-Fi. He is unsure whether it will directly compete with Wi-Fi and notes that it is in the early stage of its lifecycle. He adds that “some of our members have invested in that technology, it’s going through the process of standardisation”, and that “we consider [it] as part of the Wi-Fi family”.

As we’ve heard, the Wi-Fi Alliance continues to be extremely active and it will be interesting to see if its work to increase awareness of the technology’s importance and development permeates into the minds of consumers and regulators alike, especially given the sheer number of voices clamouring for the attention of both groups.

CV – Edgar Figueroa
Under Figueroa’s leadership, the Wi-Fi Alliance has grown to more than 800 member companies. He forged numerous strategic partnerships to facilitate penetration of Wi-Fi into established and emerging markets, defined the alliance’s Wi-Fi CERTIFIED programme development framework, and guided the launch of several generations of Wi-Fi that have proliferated into mass markets.

Prior to the Wi-Fi Alliance, Figueroa was at Ridgeway Systems & Software (now Cisco). He was instrumental in delivering the industry’s first session border controller, and the H.460.18 and H.460.19 International Telecommunications Union standards for secure network traversal. Before Ridgeway he held product management and engineering roles at 3M Company.

Figueroa is a United States Navy veteran. He served in a fighter pilot training squadron and received numerous awards including Sailor of the Year. He has also taught at the University of Texas and various community programmes in Austin Texas.