802.11ah/HaLow: Do We Really Need Another Protocol?

M. Fratto

M. Fratto

• 802.11ah/HaLow offers long range, low power wireless connectivity compared to other 802.11 protocols.

• In a vacuum, more options to choose from is beneficial, but in reality, more options lead to complications.

From the “yet another IoT wireless standard” category comes 802.11ah, what the Wi-Fi Alliance is calling HaLow, which is a wireless protocol that operates in the unlicensed 900Mhz spectrum – promising longer range, better penetration through walls, and lower power than 802.11a/b/g/n/ac. That’s great and I look forward to seeing deployments that can verify those claims because range and battery power are two limitations in IoT deployments that are difficult to overcome and could be showstoppers if they require significant investment in time or money to address.

We’ve already seen the impact on range that 802.11ac in the 5Ghz range imposes, requiring more APs to adequately cover the same square footage. Battery-driven beacons are great for retail locations because no wiring is needed, but someone has to purchase and replace the batteries periodically which adds to operational cost and the same will hold true for disconnected 802.11ah devices. A longer range, lower power draw device which doesn’t require high throughput is an excellent candidate for a protocol like 802.11ah/HaLow.

But there’s also a dark side. I noted in Over 19 IoT Radio Protocols Drive the Need for Integration APIs that there is already an ever-increasing number of wireless protocols which are all designed to overcome some particular shortcoming in other protocols or fit well in some particular, usually very specific, use case.

Saying customers benefit from more protocols because they have more options to choose from is great in a vacuum, but when it comes to products relying on protocols, very often, once that choice is made, all other choices disappear or the cost to use products using multiple protocols increases beyond any benefit that comes from variety. Customers don’t want to choose protocols—they choose products that, hopefully, integrate and interoperate.

I suspect that HaLow will most likely compete with other generalized wireless protocols like Zigbee, Z-Wave, and BlueTooth primarily in residential and facilities management controlling lights and HVAC as well as connecting environmental sensors to the network. But a new protocol required of new devices and APs to run them further complicates integration and interoperation across products using different technologies that no one really needs. What customers want is a single dashboard to centrally manage and monitor their equipment but what they get is a variety of dashboards with perhaps some consolidation but still not achieving the simple-to-use system they envision—at least not without significant investment in developers to cobble everything together.

In isolation, 802.11ah/HaLow seems great and address very real needs in IoT, but when it comes to the products, I’m not convinced yet another protocol is desirable or beneficial.

About Mike Fratto
Mike is a senior analyst on the Business Technology and Software team covering the Enterprise Networking and Data Center Technology markets. He has extensive experience reviewing and writing about enterprise remote access, security, and network infrastructure products.

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