Nobody Wants to Be Left Hanging By Their Carrier — That’s Whatsapp

No one likes to be left hanging by their carrier - that's What's App
A recent ski day reveals the power of WhatsApp accessed on a Gigabyte-speed, Enterprise-Owned Wi-Fi network, as well as the significant impact 802.11n/ac will have on the wireless infrastructure choices of building owners.
Like everyone else, I was surprised by Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp yesterday for $19 Billion. But, I did have a foreshadowing experience last week when my husband and I went to Tahoe for a ski day. On our first chair lift ride, I noted a strong cell signal at the resort and attempted a “We’re here!” text to our son. But, that 2-word message was returned undelivered, as was each subsequent communication I attempted over the course of the day. Meanwhile, my husband was passing photos and whole files to business associates in Russia and Italy. Ping, ping, ping – his phone kept going off as the big files were flying across continents and oceans with almost no delay.  He was using WhatsApp accessing the Internet via the resort’s own Wi-Fi network; I was depending on my mobile carrier to handle my simple text.

This experience jibes with Business Insider‘s explanation of  WhatsApp’s value:  “By using the Internet as its communications backbone, WhatsApp has completely transformed personal communications, which was previously dominated by the world’s largest wireless carriers.” This has me rethinking the case I made in my previous post about mobile network operators disrupting the connected building market with their M2M services.  Now I’m pondering how enterprise-owned Wi-Fi plus smart-device-delivered M2M Apps could disrupt the carriers’ attempted disruption.

My perspective from a chair lift at a state-of-the-art ski resort is as good a vantage as any to contemplate the future of Wi-Fi in the age of connected everything. The resort fits the ideal customer profile for Wireless LAN: it needs to accommodate a large and growing number of concurrent smartphone and tablet users in a finite space.  From a WLAN perspective, sports complexes like this resort are not that different from healthcare facilities, school campuses, military bases, shopping malls, etc. — they all present personal device communications and M2M traffic that has grown beyond the capacity limits of conventional 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi.  Not only is everyone here carrying one or more Wi-Fi-enabled smart devices, my ski pass, the chair lifts, the Ski Patrol sleds passing below, the plows and other grooming equipment—they are all M2M network endpoints. As this resort serves the Bay Area and is a tech showcase for local WLAN vendors, it’s likely that its Wi-Fi is Gigabyte speed as described in the just-ratified 802.11ac WLAN standard.

Gigabyte Wi-Fi has arrived just in time, supporting speeds and capacity competitive with wired connections and offering features that improve coverage, reliability, security and the handling of multiple simultaneous transmissions. Until now, the threat of congestion effects — data drops, latencies, disconnections and compromised battery life due to waiting in standby mode — has kept  802.11 Wi-Fi out of contention for building automation applications like lighting and thermostat control. Developers have opted for neighboring 2.4 Ghz-band Bluetooth, ZigBee, Bluetooth-LE and other vendor-specific protocols in the interest of response time and reliability.  But, the 2.4 Ghz ISM band has just three available channels.  802.11ac is a new 5 Ghz highway with up to 24 channels available. Deploying 802.11ac mitigates the congestion threat and all associated problems, completely changing the game.

System-on-a-chip (SOC) vendor Redpine Signals is a type of crystal ball into M2M connectivity in the Gigabyte WiFi age. With the apt tagline ‘Driving Wireless Convergence,’ Redpine offers an M2M Combo 802.11 SOC designed to be the foundation of a gateway device that can, for example, “communicate with a medical sensor with single-mode Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity, and a smartphone with Bluetooth 4.0/Wi-Fi or HVAC device with ZigBee connectivity.”  To manage the transition from legacy to new gigabyte Wi-Fi environments, networks will need to maintain M2M connections on such a mix of interfaces.

The patent office offers another window into this near future when gigabyte Wi-Fi is widely deployed, running on commercial access points and arrays from WLAN vendors like Xirrus. At this point, application-specific access points from familiar lighting control and HVAC vendors will be superfluous.  Vendors like Lutron read these tea leaves a few years ago. In 2012, Lutron filed patents for IP-addressable dimmers and other load control devices — technology and programming methods that would eliminate the need for its own hubs and CPUs. As CEPro reports, the proposed technology would provide native device-to-device control.  In other words, point your phone at a light and it dims or brightens; snap a picture of a barcode on a load control device and it gets enrolled in a control routine. And all this M2M traffic goes over the enterprise-owned WiFi, easing centralized management of all concurrent Apps and contributing energy cost savings that can be factored into network ROI.

Another factor easily grasped from my ski lift perch is that inside versus outside WiFi performance differences are going away. Aruba, another WLAN vendor, made claim to introducing the first outdoor 802.11ac access point series this week.  Meanwhile, Ruckus, yet another competitor in the same market announced new indoor GPS-like WiFi location services last week. Aruba engineer, Husnain Bajwa summed up the situation like this: “802.11ac is reclaiming the power position of Wi-Fi over LTE [carrier networks] with a higher sustained throughput per client.”

Redpine’s VP, N.Venkatesh, brings the point home for M2M: “Machine to machine (M2M) communication is rarely just a direct link between two machines. It usually involves a network of varying complexity comprising machines, sensors, equipment, controllers, storage devices and servers. The inclusion of all of these in the network is what enables increased levels of automation, operational efficiency and new process flows in all the diverse application areas of M2M. Wi-Fi standards such as 802.11n and 802.11ac are paving the way for the full potential of M2M communication.”

The market forces of tech innovation and market disruption are whirling so fast, it’s hard to bring it all into focus.  Yet, it is clearly an exciting time to be a building automation system App developer.  The competitive landscape may never be so level as it is right now, at the dawn of Gigabyte Wi-Fi when all the leading WLAN vendors want you in their ecosystem and SOC vendors like Redpine are waiting to help realize your system solution concepts.  So time to get out of the chair!

(For a list of WLAN vendors click here. Then bookmark the Wireless LAN professionals site because WLAN professor Keith Parsons provides invaluable content like this 2013 WLAN stress test report.)

Contributing Editor, automatedbuildings.com. Providing news and analysis of innovations in Buildings Control and Facilities Management that leverage Mobile Apps, Cloud Services and M2M Wi-Fi and Wireless Broadband networking.

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