802.11ah: A New and Slow 802.11 Standard May Be Just What the IoT Needs

Carl Weinschenk
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Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2016

People familiar with the 802.11 family of standards are accustomed to each successive version being faster and going longer distances than the one that came before it. For the most part, that’s true. But not always.

An exception is 802.11ah, which is aimed at creating connectivity for large ecosystems. In other words, it is a Wi-Fi standard for machine-to-machine and Internet of Things (M2M and IoT) utilizations. ABI Research offers a rundown of 802.11ah’s attributes:

Operating in the sub-1 GHz (S1G) license-exempt bands, 802.11ah offers a much greater range over 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz technologies, while several further enhancements have also been made to the PHY and MAC layers, such as power-saving mechanisms to support several years of battery life, support for up to 8,191 devices per access point, and an extended range mode offering 150 kbps of throughput at a distance of 1 km.


That sounds attractive. However, the analysts aren’t sold on its success. ABI says that just 11 million chipsets will ship by 2020, with the first going out chipmakers doors’ next year. The two main drags on 802.11ah are that it will face heavy competition among approaches that seek to serve the same vast IoT and M2M markets and that its placement in the sub 1 GHz spectrum may create compatible problems with existing infrastructure, the firm says in a new report.

The competition certainly exists. But, according to TechRepublic’s Michael Kassner, the current protocols may not be sufficient. Kassner makes the point that M2M will be the major communications channel for the IoT; the two are not discrete. His take is that despite the great number of candidates, 802.11ah may be needed. He provides eight bullet points on what it will include. Some of these are very low energy requirements and cost effectiveness (in addition to the ability to connect to so many devices, as pointed out by ABI.) The bottom line is that each of the elements he mentions is very important in satisfying the IoT’s unique needs. None of the existing candidates completely fill the bill.

Internet of Things

TelecomTV comes to the same basic conclusion. Yes, writes Ian Scales, there are other options. But the sheer size and variety of the IoT/M2M universe makes it important to have a standard that is appropriate from soup to nuts. Must-haves include cost, reliability, data throughput, range, a long unit life cycle, the ability to fulfill local needs and others. In short, there are a lot of candidates – but none of them have the resume that 802.11ah will bring to the table.

It is important to not confuse numbers with qualifications. Scales hit the nail on the head: The size and uniqueness of the IoT means that a comprehensive standard with very specific attributes is necessary. An army of almost-good-enough standards will lead to confusion. For this reason, 802.11ah – and other standards that are customized to support the IoT – are vital.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.



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