Meet HaLow: A Wifi network built for the internet of things

Wifi already connects our laptops, smartphones and smart TVs to the internet, but it has bigger ambitions. It wants to glue together the internet of things. The Wi-Fi Alliance this week unveiled its proposed technology for smart homes, connected cars, digital healthcare and a host of other IoT applications. It’s called HaLow (pronounced “Hey-Lo”), and it resembles a cross between Wifi, Bluetooth and cellular networking.

HaLow is based on a new standard developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) called 802.11ah, and it takes advantage of lower frequency bands (below 1 GHz) to send signals further without draining additional power. The idea is HaLow will have twice the range of Wifi — eventually reaching up to kilometer — and will be able to penetrate barriers likes walls. That makes it ideal for linking devices spread much further afield than in a home or office. HaLow also uses the same protocols as Wifi and can easily be incorporated into any future Wifi router or device.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Banalities

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Banalities

What HaLow won’t do is provide the raw speed we’ve become accustomed to with Wifi. There just isn’t the bandwidth in the industrial unlicensed bands that 802.11ah uses to provide the blistering broadband speeds the newest Wifi routers can achieve. But speed isn’t the point. The internet of things will comprise millions — if not billions — of sensors, appliances, machines and gadgets requiring only part-time access to the internet. Most of those devices will transmit tiny amounts of data and only intermittently. If the idea is to stream HD video to a device, then you’re much better off connecting it to traditional Wifi or 4G network.

There are plenty of other technologies tackling the internet of things, standards like ZigBee and Z-Wave. For more than a decade, 2G networks have been used to power machine-to-machine (M2M) communications in the business and industrial sectors. But as IoT begins to penetrate much further into both the consumer world and the industrial internet, there’s been a big push to create new technologies optimized specifically for IoT’s unique needs: low power, low data rates, long range and extremely low costs. Think of it as a separate internet for the internet of things.

Not only is the Wi-Fi Alliance trying to cement HaLow’s place in this new internet, but so is the Bluetooth community and mobile industry along with several startups. France’s Sigfox has begun building low-power, low-bandwidth networks in countries all over the world, connecting everything from parking spaces to soil sensors. One of the big proposals for the forthcoming 5G standard is to optimize mobile networks for IoT, a departure from the mobile industry’s relentless focus on building ever faster networks. That means many 5G networks could actually be designed to be slow and plodding. The trade off is that devices connecting to these networks will cost little to build and operate for years on a single battery charge.

So which of these different technologies will win out? It’s likely we’ll see all or a combination of them powering their individual niches of the internet of things. HaLow’s place may be assured in the smart home where the Wifi router is already the centerpiece of connectivity, while Bluetooth could continue to dominate the personal area network. But a lot relies on timing. The first HaLow-certified devices won’t be available until 2018, and it could be another few years before we see the first IoT-optimized 5G networks. Meanwhile there are a lot of technologies claiming to have the answer to cheap, low-power IoT connectivity today.

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