SAN JOSE, Calif. — After an unusual two-year delay, silicon for a new Wi-Fi standard is starting to emerge. Over the next few months, a handful of startups will sample chips for 802.11ah, a 900-MHz version of Wi-Fi targeting long-range links especially for the internet of things.
The so-called HaLow products promise delivery of up to Mbits/s over distances of tens of meters to a kilometer and support for thousands of nodes on an access point. They will occupy a space between ultra-low-power and -cost LoRa and Sigfox networks and below more power-hungry LTE Cat-M and Narrowband-IoT networks that come with data plans.
Some of the initial products will be single chips made in 40-nm processes, not likely to carry large price premiums. They represent a new breed of IoT options for unlicensed bands that support both IP networking and OFDM modulation familiar to the broad PC ecosystem. Long term, they will eke out a position as a fourth band extending the range of links for smartphones and PCs.
“HaLow stands out for its versatility in enabling new business models as well as capabilities in capacity, range, and battery operation, all of the attributes the market needs — it just needs an ecosystem to emerge,” said one wireless veteran who asked not to be named.
The Wi-Fi Alliance announced HaLow at CES 2016 as the outcome of the 802.11ah process kicked off with significant help from Qualcomm engineers in 2014. Usually, by the time an IEEE 802.11 spec is finished, several top Wi-Fi chip vendors are already shipping silicon in a race to the market — but not this time.
Two years since the standard was finished, only one company, Korean startup Newracom, is said to have shipped a chip seen in a gateway from Korean Telecom. The startup, formed by a Wi-Fi expert from Korea’s ETRI research center, got its start selling IP blocks for existing standards like 802.11n.
Four other startups around the world aim to sample HaLow silicon next year. Morse Micro, a Sydney startup formed by Wi-Fi experts from Broadcom and Radiata, is one of the most impressive of the group. Established Wi-Fi chip vendors such as Broadcom, Cypress, Huawei, Mediatek, Qualcomm, and Realtek may follow rather than lead this time.
The so-called ISM unlicensed bands vary around the world. (Image: Morse Micro)
Despite early enthusiasm for .11ah , the initial timing for the HaLow release was bad. In 2016, the next big version of mainstream 2.4-/5-GHz Wi-Fi, 802.11ax, was also ready. “There were serious design decisions companies had to make — no one could afford to miss the .11ax cycle,” said the wireless veteran.
The choice was an easy one. The .11ax products would clearly rise quickly to sell millions of units. Companies such as Qualcomm and Mediatek were also ramping LTE IoT and 5G products, leaving them no resources for HaLow. In addition, bringing Wi-Fi to the unlicensed ISM bands would require some missionary work.
“Anytime you go to a new band, it takes time,” said the wireless veteran. “Five gigahertz was a 10-year process, and it took .11ac to move it to widespread use,” while 60 GHz Wi-Fi is still getting on its feet.
“It’s a tough road to grow a new ecosystem around a new band … HaLow is in the same spot, so it will take time,” he added.
Others note that in 2016, a lot of startup energy was getting pumped into an emerging class of low-power, wide-area networks. LoRa, Sigfox, and other IoT networks for the ISM bands were on the rise, and the LTE IoT standards — Narrowband IoT and Cat-M — were in the wings. There weren’t investment dollars or entrepreneurial energy left for HaLow.
Today, the big players are expected to get into the market around August when the Wi-Fi Alliance launches its HaLow certification program. The trade group will lead up to that milestone with a series of plugfests starting this month (January).
> This article was originally published on our sister site, EE Times: “Wi-Fi Startups Polish HaLow for IoT”