Wi-Fi’s Teenage Takeover

TeenagerHow fast they grow up! Wi-Fi is barely a teenager, yet over 5 billion Wi-Fi enabled devices have already been shipped, and another 7.7 billion Wi-Fi enabled devices will ship over the next five years, according to ABI Research. On average, that’s one new device for every man, woman, and child on the planet — and most will be 11n devices, supporting data rates up to 600 Mbit/s.

Is it really that young, and was it really just 10 years ago that we were pleased if we got more than one or two Mbit/s of wireless bandwidth? It was indeed — I can just about remember the hoo-hah when 54Mbit/s 802.11g was finally ratified in 2003, accompanied by dire predictions of battles between neighbors as their wireless routers fought to drown each other out.

I was reminded of all this by a useful infographic put together by UK networking specialist Prodec Networks. When businesses are being encouraged to operate at Internet speed, sometimes it is important to remember that much of what we take for granted — the foundations upon which we build — is remarkably young, perhaps even immature.  A side issue is that it can also be very unevenly distributed — there is free public Wi-Fi in some surprising places, while there are highly advanced places where you might think it would be a given, yet it is in remarkably short supply.

The one area where it is almost ubiquitous now is in business, to the extent that if your company doesn’t see Wi-Fi provision as critical, you are in quite a small minority. And increasingly, that means businesses are moving from wireless being an overlay to wireless being an integral part of the network — indeed, on many sites, it has become the primary network access medium for users.

All this reliance means that wireless connectivity is still growing healthily — market researcher Dell’Oro recently said it expects overall wireless LAN revenues to expand by 57 percent over the next five years. It reckons the key trends driving this growth will include deployment of service provider Wi-Fi, the 802.11ac upgrade cycle, and cloud-managed Wi-Fi, with the additional impetus coming from consumer video over Wi-Fi and the BYOD trend. And that is revenue growth — with falling prices, unit growth will be higher still.

Yet as you build out your wireless estate and increasingly integrate it into your core enterprise network, don’t lose sight of how young this stuff is. In particular, the usage habits and expectations that most people have developed around Wi-Fi (and even more so around 3G, of course) are significantly different from the old days of enterprise networking.

These differences are likely to affect everything — network planning most obviously, but also WAN utilization and traffic management. You may also need to start looking seriously at spectrum usage and management, especially in densely populated areas.

And of course, wireless security becomes ever more important. While some Wi-Fi technologies can geo-locate clients to give a degree of protection against external intruders, your actual radio transmissions will still escape any building short of a Faraday Cage. It’s all part of the general trend towards de-perimiterization, and it makes the likes of strong encryption and wireless intrusion detection impossible to ignore.