At long last, the Wi-Fi Alliance has certified the new Wi-Fi HaLow standard designed to provide connectivity for the internet of things. Chips and evaluation kits that meet the standard are already ready from Morse Micro, and we can expect devices next year. But does the IoT need a new connectivity standard?
About five and half years ago the Wi-Fi Alliance announced that it was planning a new Wi-Fi standard just for the IoT. It was dubbed Wi-Fi HaLow and the IEEE standard was called 802.11ah. The whole goal of the new standard was to tackle the high power consumption of traditional Wi-Fi and to have the signals stretch over longer ranges.
Wi-Fi HaLow delivers on all fronts. It uses 900 MHz spectrum to send data over as much as a kilometer with the data rates increasing as it gets closer to the access point. At its closest point, the data rates are 80 Mbps and at the furthest a mere trickle of 150 Kbps. The lower power consumption means that a device can work for years on a single coin cell battery thanks to tweaks in how often a device wakes up to sense and deliver information. Additionally, each access point can support 8,000 devices, which may not matter in a home, but could be relevant in an enterprise or small industrial setting as well as in smart cities.
This doesn’t mean that you can expect a connected camera to deliver 4K images for years on a single coin cell, but if you wanted to put a Wi-Fi HaLow radio into a smoke alarm or a leak sensor you’d end up saving on batteries. I’d be curious to see how it functions in something like a lock, although much of the battery consumption in a traditional lock is driven by running the motor to move the bolt.
But does the internet of things need a new connectivity standard? When the Alliance announced the effort back in Jan. 2016 I was skeptical because we had too many long-range low power options such as Sigfox, LoRaWAN, and other proprietary networks. And in the home on the low-power front, we had mesh technologies such as Zigbee and Z-wave.
Five years later we have even more long-range options, although LoRaWAN seems to be winning hearts and minds at the moment. We also have the upcoming Z-Wave long-range standard that might help keep Z-wave in the home even as the new Matter standard pushes Wi-Fi and Thread throughout the smart home.
Back then I spoke with some of my chip sources who didn’t seem interested in producing anything for the Wi-Fi HaLow spec, which made me doubt the standard. But today I think it makes more sense, especially in the home. For years we’ve been telling people to pick Wi-Fi or Bluetooth devices over those that use Zigbee or Z-wave so they can avoid hubs. Once the working group behind Matter said that it would rely on Thread and Wi-Fi, with Thread working for low-power, low-date rate devices, we told people to choose Wi-Fi or Thread devices.
This means that Wi-Fi HaLow could find a place in the smart home in a few years simply because makers of Wi-Fi routers choose to put Wi-Fi HaLow silicon into their routers as opposed to Thread chips. It’s much easier to work with a single radio standard and eventually, if the demand is there we’d see big Wi-Fi chip makers such Infineon (it purchased Cypress), Qualcomm and Broadcom integrate them into their generic Wi-Fi chips. We’ll also see those companies purchase the smaller companies that are currently making Wi-Fi HaLow silicon.
But I actually think Wi-Fi HaLow has a bigger opportunity in the enterprise setting, simply because there are plenty of specialty sensors and products produced for the enterprise market, and enterprise IT managers might appreciate less network complexity. The companies behind Matter very much want it to become a smart building and enterprise-class standard, but there is far less momentum behind it in that vertical, which means Matter and Wi-Fi HaLow will be starting out on somewhat equal footing. Or maybe the Matter working group will adopt this flavor of Wi-Fi as part of its own standard as well.
For more on the standard, check out this interview I did with the COO of Morse Micro, a silicon company dedicated to Wi-Fi HaLow.