This week, the Wireless Broadband Alliance issued a report detailing how to make Wi-Fi better for use in the industrial IoT. The report focuses on bringing the characteristics of Time Sensitive Networking to wireless networks using Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E. Longtime readers of this newsletter might recall my obsession a few years back with Time Sensitive Networking, also known as deterministic networking.
Time Sensitive Networking has been essential for bringing features such as low latency and guaranteed packet delivery to industrial networks that use Ethernet. Perhaps you recall the days of downloading large files at home and then experiencing glitches in your voice calls or movie streaming. When Ethernet or Wi-Fi networks get congested packets can drop or slow down. This isn’t a big deal at home, but it is problematic in a factory setting where a sensor reading might need to notify a controller to shut something down before it explodes or cuts off someone’s hand.
Thus, companies layered on the ability to segment out portions of Ethernet networks for dedicated packets to ensure they arrived and to guarantee certain latencies. Back in 2017 when I was writing about TSN, the focus was on wires. But with companies adopting autonomous robots that roam warehouse floors or seeking flexible manufacturing lines that can be adapted as needs change, wireless makes more sense.
In many factories and for more modern use cases, such as heads-up displays or robots, wireless works better. The idea is to graft some of the capabilities alongside the existing Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E equipment that factories are adopting today, and to build it into future Wi-Fi standards.
While some of the planned industrial-friendly features aren’t currently part of the existing Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E standards, Malcolm Smith, CTO Advisor at Cisco, says they can can be layered on through additional certifications. He hopes that they can become part of Wi-Fi 7 standards created by the IEEE and the Wi-Fi Alliance. He said companies are testing some of these deterministic features today and expects some customers to have them in production by next year.
Cisco, Deutsche Telekom and Intel are leading the WBA working group that wrote this report.
So what will companies use deterministic Wi-Fi for? Some features and use cases include the ability to guarantee packet delivery and specific latencies as mentioned above. In industrial settings, especially for equipment that is acting autonomously, having defined and guaranteed latency is essential before decoupling it from a wire.
The WBA report also describes using the fine-timing measurement protocol that’s defined in the IEEE 802.11 standard for precise location capabilities. This could come in handy for ensuring that an autonomous robot sticks on a predefined path or helps keep workers away from unsafe areas.
Other features focus on the power-saving functions of Wi-Fi 6 which can be incredibly important for battery powered devices. After all, if you don’t need a wire for connectivity, then you should also try to get rid of one for power. This will help especially with robots and heads up displays. It also can help with sensors, which typically don’t use Wi-Fi because of the power demands associated with the protocol.
Finally, by applying these features in Wi-Fi 6E, which allocates an entirely new swath of spectrum for Wi-Fi data, companies can make use of greater capacity. Some of the autonomous robots use cameras and LIDAR, which can generate gigabytes of data. Now that data can travel over the relatively empty 6GHz spectrum with quality guarantees.
As Wi-Fi gets ready for its industrial debut it will have to compete with 5G and private 5G networks that carriers are trying to sell. Smith believes that because many companies already have Wi-Fi networks, and because 5G equipment designed for factory implementations are just hitting the market, that customers will adopt Wi-Fi for many industrial use cases, simply because it’s already in their factories and the deterministic features are available.
I think we’ll likely end up with both.