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A thought piece by Nick Henley, Networking and Unified Communications specialist at Cordless Consultants…

Smart is part of many product descriptions, including wireless networks, but technology not designed or applied correctly is far from “Smart”. The ability for wireless networks to undertake tasks on the edge of smart have been there for some time with location-based services through radios connecting a particular appliance to 2,4ghz networks such as Zigbee allowing for smart devices to connect. Yet the proliferation of applied solutions into business has remained low.

Driving Forces

COVID19 has driven design of “smart” networks and technologies as companies bring teams back and we have seen the first solutions being commissioned and brought to practical completion. Typical adopters are those planning new buildings or refurbishments where this can be deployed during disruptive works. Here we look at how wi-fi can support the deployment of smart and the overlap into smart networks.

From a capability perspective, we’ve had lag between new standards capable of supporting smart and their deployment. The AX standard of Wi-Fi six was released in 2019 and despite some early adopters this has taken time to progress. We designed our first deployment as AX was released and this went live in April 2020. At that time there was resistance to the new design techniques of more densely populated wi-fi and the need to use wider frequency spectrums to achieve greater data transmission speeds. Resistance to change and slow take up of laptop devices capable of transmitting using Wi-Fi 6 (6Ghz) means that even 3 years later it is still questioned whether a design should take this step. This isn’t the case with smart however which presents its own valid use case aside from greater speed and lower latency for users.

A key design principle is that a building should function when empty but still report on status, environment and be ready to accept visitors, the use cases for wireless smart are abundant. The primary role of wireless is to continue to act as the transmission layer for devices such as sensors, monitoring and forward communication to cloud based analytics. To facilitate this, manufacturers have been busy, alongside smart providers, adapting the software in devices to allow for greater integration between smart and wireless networks and remove duplication. For example:

– Embedding software for third party smart providers into Access points
– Allowing smart gateways to be paired directly to Access Points using USB gateways
– Deploying Wi-Fi 6E to allow for greater channel frequencies and lower latency.

The wireless devices haven’t changed significantly but the operating software deployed is constantly being updated and licensed in different ways. Deploying strong wi-fi however and having good coverage is not enough and we constantly see poorly planned wi-fi whose aim is to provide coverage and nothing else. In construction terms, it has to go further. There’s a need to plan how to support wi-fi and integrate this into the building. It’s no longer enough to cover the building in a thin layer of wi-fi and with 2.4Ghz reducing in effective use, the aim is to deploy at 5Ghz and allow Wi-Fi 6 and 6e to take over, so this means denser wi-fi; considering construction materials.

What should we be doing?

Designers must think differently. Capable products are available but carry features that are never used with equipment which is mis-designed or mis-deployed. Having features isn’t enough on its own so it takes vision to match business use cases with the correct environment and apply the best technology. Importantly knowing what not to deploy is just as critical so the design remains simple to implement.

From a technology perspective it’s unlikely there will be a refresh of devices in the near future, so focus on using what is available is important. In most cases this is more than most will ever deploy so innovation is needed as to how smart products and wi-fi are designed. Don’t deploy as much technology for technology’s sake, understand the use cases for the building, focus on: why, what and where, before HOW.

Making Progress

After these questions are answered, there is much available to integrate. Wireless manufacturers have been working on adopting applications into their devices. Location services which were once rudimentary and based on the amount of radios accessing a particular access point are now conduits for other applications which handle smart buildings as a core offering such as Enocean. Aruba for instance allows USB connections within its AP for Enocean dongles to connect instead of using an additional gateway device connected over wireless or on a wired network. The next logical step would be to produce a software agnostic product that can accept such devices as applications only and provide this functionality without the dongle.

Cisco has launched its DNA spaces product, creating a portal for analytical data on what a building is doing, who is consuming what and where they are going to allow for qualified decisions to be made on what to deploy for a smart building. Linking into systems such as SAP, this provides information on what is happening within the building but still relies on vision to decide what the building will do when presented with this.

There are traditionally two product offerings in respect of technological advances: proprietary or open source; and manufacturers and software companies are moving towards open source more rapidly now. Using the AWS approach of embedding software into multiple platforms a consumer already owns allows for quicker penetration into the marketplace. And so, it is happening in wireless. With market leaders Aruba and Cisco deploying and expanding APIs into software that talk natively to other applications already in a consumer’s technology stack, the barrier to investment typical of a proprietary conquer all approach is reduced.

In terms of new technology, there is much available, but consider what is truly viable. Advances we see that will provide the greatest support for use cases are mobile and security.

Support for Radio Access Networks (RAN) for the delivery of 5G is the most obvious but least known benefit of the new AX standards. Whilst wi-fi calling has been available in limited format for some time, the ability for a company’s access points to be used to hand off mobile calls to mobile providers is a big step. We’ll also see greater security embedded into access points, building on the ability for each access point to host Wireless LAN (WLAN) control capability and reduce the security risk of having an outlying device that can be targeted without any inherent security deployed on the device. With smart networks embedding software at the edge, this is an important step. Finally, on the horizon is Wi-Fi7 with talk of this being released in 2024 but this is likely to be 2027 before this takes hold so shouldn’t affect decisions within the lifetime of current projects.

The wireless network continues to be the transmission layer but instead of handing off to another transmission gateway to complete the task, it can now do this using software; reducing linkages in the chain. This translates into less equipment in high level occupier and landlord grids and less chance of failure or latency; closing the gap on technology convergence between smart networks and wi-fi further.

Where Next?

It’s unlikely wi-fi will perform all the functions of a smart network as the reach of smart networks has to extend to far more areas and with greater granularity. But with the proliferation of wi-fi6e and denser networks coupled with greater harmonisation of applications, it will become closer. The benefit? Lower cost of deployment and integration, plus greater analytics without the need for multiple systems. The rub will be that cost will transfer to licensing of software and APIs and companies will need to be aware of costs for operating networks (including software) as providers seek to capitalise. Smart procurement can ensure technology gains are not eroded by unsustainable business models.

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