A new Wi-Fi standard called 'Wi-Fi HaLow' has been officially announced by the Wi-Fi Alliance, promising to connect devices over longer ranges while using less power than existing Wi-Fi networks.
HaLow (pronounced 'Halo') operates in the 900MHz band, whereas the wireless networks running in your home operate on either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands. The primary advantages of the 900MHz band are that it will enable Wi-Fi signals to travel greater distances – nearly twice the range of today's Wi-Fi, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance – while offering greater power efficiency.
The low power draw of Wi-Fi HaLow – which also goes by its technical name of IEEE 802.11ah – means it should be suitable for use in small wearable devices or 'smart home' gadgets that aren't connected to mains power and instead run on batteries.
And it's this latter category of small, connected devices – often referred to collectively as the 'Internet of Things' – which is the primary focus of Wi-Fi HaLow, and for one very good reason. While HaLow offers longer-range Wi-Fi – including a better ability to penetrate walls and barriers that impede wireless signals – the 900MHz band significantly cuts down on the speed of data transfer.
Compared to the mainstream Wi-Fi technology many of us have in our homes – with 802.11ac 5GHz in particular hitting data rates up to several hundred megabits per second – HaLow is much slower, offering data rates between 150 kilobits per second and 18 megabits per second.
In other words, you wouldn't want to be streaming Netflix or running your home PC entirely off a Wi-Fi HaLow connection, as the speeds just aren't there. For small devices like smartwatches, fitness trackers, connected light bulbs, and fancy coffee machines, however, HaLow would enable sufficiently speedy data rates, as the amount of data traffic passing to and from these kinds of gadgets is much, much lower.
Of course, some of these kinds of devices are already available with Bluetooth, which is another popular low-power data connectivity technology. But the advantage of HaLow over Bluetooth is that HaLow devices will be able to connect directly to the Internet, whereas Bluetooth devices primarily connect to other local devices only.
While that brings with it certain security risks – as any device connected to the Internet is more easily capable of being hacked – it also makes technology much more useful, as we'll be able to remotely control and monitor our gadgets from anywhere with a web connection.
As Brian Barrett at Wired put it, "That may not seem so important now, but it will be critical as wearables, in particular, strive to become truly untethered. Eventually, connected devices need to transition from Pinocchio to real boy. HaLow should help that process".
The Wi-Fi Alliance hasn't clarified the exact power specifications as yet, so we'll need to wait and see how truly efficient HaLow is for the devices that will populate the Internet of Things.
But the biggest limiter at this point is just how long it will take for this new technology to arrive. The Wi-Fi Alliance isn't expected to be certifying HaLow products until 2018, meaning the future for now remains firmly planted on the horizon. We can't wait… but it seems we'll have to.