- Analia Llorente
- From BBC News World
“Excuse me, can you give me the wifi password?” If you’ve never asked or if you’ve never been asked this question, it’s because you are literally disconnected.
Wi-Fi, WiFi or simply WiFi appeared on the market in 1997. It is a wireless connection system, within a certain area, between electronic devices, to access the internet.
WiFi is based on IEEE 802.11, a group of wireless protocols created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a worldwide association dedicated to standardization and development in technical areas.
Over 25 years, wifi has had a profound impact on the way societies connect.
“The biggest impact of wifi was equitable access to the internet. Imagine if the world had developed only with cell phones or satellite. Only the rich could afford it”, explains Sujit Dey, director of the Wireless Communications Center at the University of San Diego. (USD) in the United States.
WiFi is accessible because it is based on an unlicensed spectrum.
“This means that nobody controls it, but it also means that the quality of service is sometimes bad. But, as it is an unlimited spectrum, as long as you have cable networks, the wifi part is free. This democratizes access. Without wifi, millions and millions of people would not have any kind of internet access,” says Dey.
But wifi also has an economic effect. “It’s several billion dollars a year. It’s a phenomenal impact. The impact of connectivity on people’s lives is enormous,” says Dorothy Stanley of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Standards Association (IEEE SA).
According to estimates by the non-profit organization Wi-Fi Alliance, which owns the wifi brand, over the course of 2022, nearly 18 billion enabled devices will be in use.
The global economic value of wifi is estimated at US$3.3 trillion in 2021. By 2025, this value is expected to reach US$4.9 trillion. , according to one study.
Wi-Fi has also raised demands for more efficient, reliable and secure connections in hybrid or remote work scenarios, complex home and business connectivity systems, and the Internet of Things.
In an increasingly connected world, we ask ourselves: what will be the future of connectivity? What will come after wifi?
It is important to remember that, although wifi has become ubiquitous in the developed world in the last two decades, there are still many places on the planet without this technology and without internet access.
For example, an estimated 244 million people in Latin America (or a third of the population) do not have access to the internet, according to a 2021 study by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the Inter-American Bank of Development (BID) and Microsoft.
But after the Covid-19 pandemic, connectivity gained momentum. Many technological innovations by governments and organizations helped bring connectivity to remote areas.
“Wifi isn’t the all-in-one solution, but it’s an important part of the overall solution,” says Stanley.
The expert lists examples in remote areas of India and Canada where mixed satellite, fiber optic and wireless connectivity systems have been implemented. In 2021, Mexico City received the Guinness World Record as the most connected city in the world, with 21,500 free internet points.
Since the launch of wifi, standards have continually evolved, improving speed, adding new features or technologies, and a new identification name.
802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, is the latest update, released in 2021. This standard offers an ultra-fast speed of 9.6 gigabit per second (Gbps) and supports 2.4 gigahertz (GHz), 5 GHz and 6 GHz and wide channels (80, 160 MHz), among other features.
But it is not yet widely available in the market.
Engineers are already working on the next step, 802.11be or Wi-Fi 7, with enhanced features that promise to be “a major milestone,” according to a June 2022 working group report.
Everything seems to indicate that there are no limits to the wifi.
“We still haven’t found [limite]and the projection is that there will be a tenfold growth in demand for wifi sources in the next ten years,” says Stanley.
“Our goal is to focus on greater range, performance, and continuing backwards compatibility, because we want people to use their devices that they’ve already purchased.”
Wifi advancements not only improve speed, they also allow many devices to connect at the same time and maintain that speed.
“More people want to use different types of devices. It’s not just the phone, it’s the watch, glasses, etc. There will be more and more connected devices. That’s why wifi keeps updating,” says Dey.
alternatives to wifi
While wifi still has a lot of room to grow and is the most stable technology for connectivity, there are some alternatives that can complement it or maybe even replace it in the future.
“5G is coming to most countries in Europe, the United States and Latin America. The problem is that most 5G deployments were based on 4G. So it will take a few years to have a true 5G deployment,” says Sujit Dey .
By the end of 2026, 5G is expected to account for around 43% of subscription packages in Latin America, according to a study by Ericsson. But the costs are often higher.
“Many people in different demographics can’t afford a 5G plan, so wifi is still the cheaper alternative. But of course, you can’t take wifi out of the house, so 5G plans will need to be affordable,” says Dey.
There is also the possibility of transmitting data through light.
Professor of Mobile Communications Harald Haas at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland coined the term Li-Fi in 2011, a technology that uses LED lights to transmit data.
Li-Fi can provide internet access a hundred times faster than traditional WiFi, with speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps).
The downside of traditional wifi routers is that multiple devices in the same space can interfere with each other. Li-Fi can use multiple lights in a home without interference, says its creator.
For Dey, this type of technology is very effective for indoor environments, but requires an additional infrastructure cost. So it’s not a cheap alternative.
“Imagine an office where you have to put in the right spotlights. There are some advantages in terms of speed and level of connectivity, but there are disadvantages of requiring new infrastructure in general terms”, he says.
There is also connectivity with satellites. Companies like billionaire Elon Musk’s Starlink offer high-speed satellite broadband internet service in remote and rural locations for a $110 monthly plan with a one-time equipment cost of $599. (R$ 3.2 thousand).
“Starlink is an innovative addition to our connectivity portfolio. I think it has the potential to increase the deployment of existing satellites and make this technology perhaps more accessible and pervasive,” says Stanley.
However, satellite communication has a high latency, which means that the delay is longer than that of wifi or cellular.
“To mitigate this problem, some companies have lower-orbit satellites and have less delay problems. Now they are trying to integrate satellite and wifi,” says Dey.
“If this integration is successful in the next few years, it won’t just be a few people who will be able to do things remotely. A lot more people will be able to do it too, because there will be wifi connectivity”, he says.
Dey also highlights Google’s project with balloons and those of other companies with drones.
“I think the best connection will be by air, because the cost of infrastructure is much lower,” he says.
“You can access areas where there is no fiber optics, especially in underdeveloped countries that want to become more developed.”
Of course, there are several technologies that are being tested and will be used in the future to connect.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all technology. There’s so much demand for connectivity that we need to pick up all the pieces, put the products together, and bring them to market to meet the needs of people everywhere,” says Stanley. “Our vision for the future is for everyone to be connected.”
For Dey, the connectivity landscape will change completely in the next ten to 20 years, which is why “connectivity must be a birthright in this foray into the modern era. “We can’t do anything constructively without connectivity”, he concludes.
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