What's next for Wi-Fi?

The huge 11n performance jump -- to 300Mbps data rate and roughly 100M to 150Mbps throughput -- will become the basis for unwiring work and life to a much greater extent than ever before

3. The Wi-Fi-zation of things

Big innovations in power consumption and management are making it possible not only to extend battery life for Wi-Fi smartphones, but also to embed Wi-Fi into swarms of new devices and now even wireless sensors: medical monitoring devices, building control systems, real-time location tracking tags and consumer electronics. The result is the ability to continuously monitor and collect data, which can be personalized based on a user's identity and location.

"There's nothing that other contemporary limited-distance RF technologies can do that Wi-Fi can't," writes wireless consultant and Network World blogger Craig Mathias.

"With an enterprise wireless LAN, this infrastructure is already in place," says Atheros' McFarland. "Just add the low-power sensors."

Embedded Wi-Fi vendor Summit Data Communications recently announced 802.11a radios in various plug-in formats to let devices use the uncrowded 5GHz band. Start-up Gainspan offers 11bg Wi-Fi radios, with an IP software stack, that use so little power that wireless sensors can run for years on standard batteries. (Read about other wireless and mobile start-ups worth watching here.) And Redpine Signals offers a single-stream embedded 11n radio.

4. Improved security

One of the most corrosive impacts of the Internet is the victimization of its users, via identify theft, denial-of-service attacks, privacy violations, spying and the corresponding lack of trust these abuses create. Mobility has the potential to make this even worse, if users become convinced that Wi-Fi connectivity opens them up to unacceptable risks.

The IEEE recently approved the 802.11w standard, which protects the wireless management frames used to make the radio link work better, says Matthew Gast, chief strategist at Trapeze Networks, now a Belden company. Today, a Wi-fi client can receive and obey a "get off the network" message that may have been generated by an attacker spoofing the MAC address of an access point. The 11w standard shuts down this line of attack.

More generally, says Michael Tennefoss, head of strategic marketing for Aruba Networks, Wi-Fi will increasingly liberate users through the use of identity-based security. In Wi-Fi networks, security policies are associated with a user, not with a switch port. A related benefit: Users can move between home, work, hotel, branch offices and public hotspots without compromising their security, Tennefoss says.

5. Cooperation with non-Wi-Fi networks

Today, if you're a T-Mobile Wi-Fi subscriber, but are in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot from another provider, you're out of luck. In the future, your Wi-Fi device will be able to query that "foreign" service, find out if you can use it and then join it securely. And your cellular subscriber identity will travel with you, enabling you to make use of various Wi-Fi services.

Some of this ability to stitch together the several networks on which users increasingly live will be enabled by the 802.11u standard, for inter-working with external networks. In the future, Wi-Fi networks will advertise their services, and the terms under which you can link to them. Based on your identity with a network service provider, you might be able to access all or some subset of services of another network. In emergencies, you would have access to a narrowly defined set of essential connections and functions. The 11u standard is planned for June 2010 final approval.

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John Cox

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