Wi-Fi enters the gigabit era
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

The Wi-Fi Alliance has gone from strength to strength. Edgar Figueroa, its president and CEO, talks to Sam Fenwick about Wi-Fi past, present and future

It’s fair to say Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Edgar Figueroa (pictured above) is a Wi-Fi veteran. After nearly two decades working in wireless comms he’s seen Wi-Fi technology develop from its infancy into the (still-evolving) behemoth it is today. Figueroa’s LinkedIn profile is a clear testament to his knowledge: 115 people have endorsed him for his skills in Wi-Fi, and 106 for wireless. And the technology must hold a draw for him – despite a five-year stint as president and chairman of the SEP2 Consortium, working with smart grids, he’s been part of the Wi-Fi Alliance since 2004.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is a not-for-profit global association that works to promote advancements in Wi-Fi technology and standards. Representatives from around the world collaborate on aspects such as interoperability, security, and backwards compatibility. The Alliance’s vision, put simply, is ‘connecting everyone and everything, everywhere’. It recently launched its certification programme for WiGig (which uses wide channels in 60 GHz to achieve data transfer rates of up to eight Gbps, with low latency at distances of up to 10 metres). WiGig-enabled devices will use beamforming to eliminate interference from their neighbours, even in dense 60 GHz environments.

The WiGig standard could be instrumental in making widely-available 5G a reality. The Alliance expects that close to 200 million WiGig-enabled devices will be in circulation next year, rising to 570 million in 2018 and reaching “into the billions after that”, says Figueroa. He believes WiGig will be “one of several technologies that are going to be foundational to 5G… because of the sheer capacity it’s going to bring”.

However, as with any milestone, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for WiGig. Two of the biggest challenges to overcome were harmonisation and technical issues. Back when the work on WiGig was just beginning it was being developed by both the WiGig Alliance and the Wi-Fi Alliance. That was a problem because “if you have two standards, you have none”. Figueroa explains the first order of business was to harmonise the work being done by both organisations. It wasn’t long before the two unified, and the WiGig standard has been completed by the Wi-Fi Alliance. “That was sort of a big effort; to get everyone to agree that together we’re better,” Figueroa adds.

The technical challenges were mostly “related to the timing of the radios and how sensitive the radios at 60 GHz were to the nuances of the radio implementations. It’s hard enough to get that right within one device, but our goal is always to get a multitude of independently developed equipment to communicate well together, and [it] took a number of years to get that right.”

Figueroa highlights WiGig’s suitability for virtual and augmented reality applications, because of its low latency and the fact that a lot of VR/AR shortcomings at the moment stem from the need to be connected via wires to a device.

The growing demand for mission-critical data capabilities (including the upcoming Emergency Services Network here in the UK) is also on the Alliance’s radar. Figueroa says that some of its programmes are working to provide tighter integration with managed networks, so a service provider can know when a connection’s quality has dropped to the point where it needs to be offloaded onto a network operating on licensed spectrum.

“These are things we don’t have now, but they can go a long way to mitigate the concerns with using unlicensed spectrum for critical services,” he says. “If you know you can maintain the reliability to a certain number of nines beyond the decimal point on unlicensed then you don’t need to sacrifice licensed spectrum, you can maintain that connection on unlicensed. You can rely on that device and the network intelligence to tell you when you’ve reached a threshold and you must switch to a different network.”

WiGig isn’t the only exciting development in the Wi-Fi space. Earlier this year the Alliance unveiled HaLow: a low power long range Wi-Fi solution. HaLow extends Wi-Fi into the 900 MHz band, enabling longer range lower power connectivity. Its range is nearly twice that of today’s Wi-Fi (802.11ac). “[HaLow’s] sweet spot is going to be in moderate distance, moderate power consumption… not extremely long battery life or extremely long range, which many of the other technologies are focused on,” explains Figueroa. “There’s a number of applications that can be enabled by having access to a network and having a service range that’s a kilometre or so.” These applications could include smart homes and cities, connected cars, and wearable tech.

With burgeoning populations, many of whom expect to be able to access the internet 24/7, any Wi-Fi standard must be able to perform in high-density environments. Figueroa gives stadiums as an example.

“Wi-Fi has moved well beyond the experimental phase in terms of offering services in stadia. The last Superbowl in the US brought terrific experience with fans being able to replay [the last play] on their devices… I’d say that Wi-Fi has already passed with flying colours that demanding test of providing connectivity in a stadium.” He adds that stadia are a potential use case for WiGig.

Going forward, Figueroa says that the Wi-Fi Alliance is working on technology that will enable devices to automatically select the best-performing Wi-Fi network available. And it doesn’t stop there.

“We have some new capabilities related to voice applications and operator networks that you can expect to see in the near future. [Examples include] mobile multimedia [and] optimised connectivity experience. These programmes [will introduce] a standard way for you to be on a phone call over cellular and have it offloaded to the Wi-Fi network while you’re on the call. [They’ll be the] dynamic capability to move you across spectral domains, not only from Wi-Fi to cellular but from a particular band in Wi-Fi to a particular band in cellular. Many operators are helping us get this right,” Figueroa says.

He highlights the fact that a number of cellular operators around the world are “Wi-Fi first”; where subscribers’ devices initially “try to connect over Wi-Fi and only if it’s not available will they connect to some other network. Those companies are growing, so that tells you something about Wi-Fi’s ability to deliver voice applications.”

While the technology is evolving apace, Figueroa’s extensive experience of Wi-Fi’s development means he can reflect on key points in its past. He picks out two pivotal areas, where if things had gone differently Wi-Fi might not have achieved its current popularity. Those being the transition through its first generation of security and getting Wi-Fi into handsets, which required addressing the problem of in-device interference. In the case of security, if “we hadn’t gotten [mutual authentication and encryption mechanisms] right, Wi-Fi probably would have been around until the early 2000s and then that would have been it, some other technology would have become more reliable.”

He adds that “people don’t realise Wi-Fi has only been around for 16 years, but it’s been quite a ride. It’s been very interesting to see how the experience with connectivity has evolved and [how] expectations continue to ramp up. [In the beginning] I was very happy just to be able to get an Ethernet cable from my office to my living room, and now people are upset that the Wi-Fi on their transcontinental flight isn’t what is should be. It’s been quite the journey.”

CV – Edgar Figueroa
Under Figueroa’s leadership the Wi-Fi Alliance has grown to more than 700 member companies. He forged numerous strategic partnerships to facilitate penetration of Wi-Fi into established and emerging markets, defined the Wi-Fi Alliance 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.

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