More than Wi-Fi: The future of wireless access points (Reader Forum)
The wireless access point (AP) will ultimately do more than simply offer users a Wi-Fi connection. As the age of wireless IoT convergence approaches, the AP can be expected to deliver a wide range of wireless services from Wi-Fi to BLE, Zigbee and more. The aggregation of multiple wireless protocols/services under the auspices of a single AP is perhaps analogous to the evolution of the chipset in the semiconductor industry.
With the steady progression of Moore’s law, discrete components such as GPUs and CPUs were ultimately integrated on a single die. Similarly, the converged access point will integrate multiple connectivity technologies in a single AP to serve an increasing number of Wi-Fi and non-Wi-Fi devices.
In addition to Moore’s law driving convergence, real-world constraints such as access to power and restrictive physical spaces frequently limit the placement and number of wireless hubs (such as an AP) that can be deployed in a specific location. These constraints further fuel unifying multiple connectivity protocols into a single access point. Deploying an excessive number of cables and obtrusive AP-like boxes on the ceilings of hotels, offices and enterprise campuses is expensive, aesthetically unappealing and may run afoul of local building codes.
Moreover, an excess number of uncoordinated single protocol specific wireless hubs increases spectrum interference. Specifically, two hubs sharing the same channel (radio frequency spectrum) will create interference — rather than extra capacity. An AP that unifies multiple connectivity protocols in a single unit must be built to reduce interference by coordinating frequency spectrum usage and automating channel selection. This ‘forced co-existence’ drives radio engineers to intelligently optimize performance, for example, by ensuring that Wi-Fi and Zigbee minimize competing for the same channels (co-channel interference).
Beyond physical constraints and spectrum interference, the deployment of multiple APs, each designed to support disparate wireless technologies, significantly increases management complexity. To be sure, a separate network is often built and configured each time an organization adds a specific communication protocol such as Wi-Fi, LTE, Zigbee, or BLE. Unifying multiple wireless protocols and services within a single AP allows network administrators to streamline device onboarding and more easily view, manage and secure their entire wireless infrastructure with a single pane of glass. This facilitates network automation, the generation of actionable analytics and the creation of custom dashboards with open APIs.
It is also important to understand that many IoT endpoints are basic computing devices equipped with rudimentary or extremely limited security capabilities. A converged AP can help provide a multi-layered security approach by encrypting data between access points and IoT devices, encrypting SSL traffic and providing HTTPs protection between the AP and an external management system. With robust security protocols, the AP will ultimately enable IoT devices to be treated as ‘first-class’ devices like laptops and smartphones. In practical terms, this means the AP will onboard IoT devices similarly to how current devices like smartphones are onboarded today.
With the advent of 802.11ax, Wi-Fi is evolving into a deterministic wireless technology that is often considered the de-facto medium for internet connectivity. Nevertheless, while Wi-Fi meets the needs of many applications, it is clearly not the sole connectivity method for all wireless devices. For example, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is a personal area network that is most appropriate for communicating with specific objects in a short-range, such as beacons, sensors and monitoring devices. Zigbee – another wireless access technology that offers mid-range, low-power consumption, low-rate wireless data transfer – is targeted at smart devices such as door locks and light switches.
As the age of wireless and IoT convergence approaches, the wireless access point will ultimately do more than offer users a simple Wi-Fi connection. Indeed, the access point will be tasked with delivering a wide range of wireless services from Wi-Fi to BLE, Zigbee and more. This is because real-world constraints such as finite power, spectrum interference and limited space restrict the number of access points that can be deployed in a specific location. Moreover, the deployment of multiple access points each designed to support disparate wireless technologies significantly increases management complexity and creates potential security vulnerabilities. Ultimately, a converged access point that aggregates multiple connectivity protocols in a single unit can help address the above-mentioned challenges and pave the way to a ubiquitous wireless future.
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