Everything You Need to Know About Wi-Fi HaLow

Vahid Manian, Chief Operating Officer, Morse Micro


What is Wi-Fi HaLow and what makes it the best solution for the Internet of Things?

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Figure 1: Wi-Fi spans several frequency bands and meets a variety of connectivity challenges (Source: Wi-Fi HaLow: Expanding Wi-Fi for IoT applications, Whitepaper by Wi-Fi Alliance)

Wi-Fi HaLow is not only the next generation of Wi-Fi to extend distances and increase battery life for Wi-Fi-connected devices, but it also represents an exciting future of wirelessly connected people and devices across the IoT.  Applications are endless, from sensors, actuators and security cameras to home automation, appliances and thermostats, all to improve user experience and productivity while reducing installation and operational costs.

Wi-Fi HaLow technology was recently standardized by the IEEE 802.11ah task group and received its name by the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA). It operates in the unlicensed sub-1 gigahertz (GHz) frequency spectrum band and offers data-rates varying from hundreds of kbits/s to tens of Mbits/s and across distances of tens of meters to over a kilometer. Wi-Fi HaLow satisfies the scalability, robustness and security demands required to address the most challenging IoT environments.

While conventional Wi-Fi is the most ubiquitous wireless communications protocol in use today, the rapid growth of the IoT has forced a rethinking of Wi-Fi, revealed technological gaps and what role it needs to play in an all-encompassing connected world. The higher demands for long-range connectivity and low power requirements for many IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) applications are ushering in Wi-Fi HaLow at an increasingly faster rate this year and for the years ahead.

Traditional Wi-Fi vs Wi-Fi HaLow

Traditional Wi-Fi enables users to stream movies and download files quickly using wide channels of radio frequencies in the 2.4GHz, 5GHz and even 6GHz bands in the near future. The effective distance for these connections is short and they drain batteries fast, requiring frequent charging or a power connection. Wi-Fi 6 for example is still ideal for bandwidth intensive applications from 4K video streaming to augmented reality.

Wi-Fi HaLow builds on the robust security and spectral efficient OFDM foundations, while utilizing narrower channels of radio frequencies under 1 GHz to better penetrate through materials, allowing connections reaching up to 10 times farther, 100 times the area and 1000 times the volume of traditional Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi HaLow is perfect for IoT devices as it allows over 8,000 robust connections to a single access point, and can take advantage of new sleep modes that save power. Wi-Fi HaLow enables a new class of products that can run off batteries for years, and still offers many Mbps of data throughput.

The network congestion, distance limitations and higher power usage of conventional Wi-Fi, along with the limited number of devices that can be connected to a single wireless access point, are no longer viable in a connected world of smart devices. Such limitations impede new IoT-centric business models that are emerging across industries, which require greater capacity, range and battery operation while minimizing deployment costs and timelines -- all of which are highly desirable attributes.

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Table 1: Comparing Wi-Fi 4/5/6 to Wi-Fi HaLow

IEEE 802.11ah Wi-Fi Standard-based Approach for IOT

Wi-Fi HaLow enhances the wireless Local Area Network (LAN) to support today’s most challenging IoT system requirements. It occupies a space between ultra-low-power, ultra-low-throughput and lower energy-efficient LoRa and Sigfox Wide Area Networks (WAN), the lower-throughput, shorter-range Personal Area Networks (PAN) such as Bluetooth/BT5, and the more power-hungry LTE Cat-M / Narrowband-IoT cellular networks that come along with data plans.

While the technological gaps had previously spurred sub-optimal proprietary solutions to address market demand, the new reality is that these gaps are now rectified under the IEEE 802.11 standards umbrella: System integrators can leverage the same hardware and software assets already developed for traditional Wi-Fi radios, enjoy multi-vendor product offering and benefit from the Wi-Fi Alliance interoperability testing and certification programs. Users no longer need to compromise on range, throughput, power consumption, network capacity, complex mesh network setups or monthly subscription contracts. Security takes front seat as part of the IEEE 802.11 enterprise-grade security standards: Wi-Fi HaLow embraces the latest WPA3 security protocol along with encrypted messages and unique ID technology for secure boot implementation. High data-rates allow secure over-the-air firmware upgrades, and support UDP and TCP/IP protocols. Native IP support means that no bridges or gateways are required.

Wi-Fi HaLow Use Cases

In the initial stage of deployment, Wi-Fi HaLow is expected to be used in both indoor and outdoor applications where standard Wi-Fi cannot reach as in the case of battery-operated surveillance systems, wireless cameras, and doorbells. Another typical use case would be large venues, where a single HaLow access point can substitute for a large number of APs, obviating inefficient, complex mesh architectures, simplifying installation and reducing total cost of ownership. Industrial automation, process control sensors, building automation, warehouses and retail stores amongst many others will need this technology, enabling everything to remain connected in an increasingly automated world. Indeed, Wi-Fi HaLow stands out for its versatility.

The potential use cases for this technology is broad, including the following:

·       Smart homes

·       Surveillance systems

·       Access control

·       Industrial process control

·       Logistics and asset management

·       Retail labels, signs and scanners

·       Building automation

·       Mobile devices

·       Smart cities

·       Agriculture and environmental sensors

Products with Wi-Fi HaLow will provide new options for unlicensed bands that support both IP networking and OFDM modulation well-known in the PC ecosystem. There is also a growing support for the projection that, in the long term, Wi-Fi HaLow will extend the range for mobile devices and PCs connectivity as part of the emergence of a fourth band.

Wi-Fi HaLow Is Here

New innovations for HaLow are gaining traction. Morse Micro, for example, is investing heavily in the market shift to HaLow with its smallest system-on-chip and module solutions. The Wi-Fi Alliance has announced a HaLow certification program to be available in 2021, and big companies are interested in using the silicon chips for Wi-Fi HaLow in new products. All of the pieces are coming together, while alternatives are starting to lose their shine, especially around the IoT. Market adoption of Wi-Fi HaLow will reinvent Wi-Fi itself, with users never seeing Wi-Fi the same again.

Morse Micro