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There's a new type of Wi-Fi, and it's designed to connect your smart home

There's a new type of Wi-Fi, and it's designed to connect your smart home


Get used to the name Wi-Fi HaLow

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It seems obvious: Wi-Fi already connects most gadgets in your home. So why wouldn't it connect your smart home gadgets, too?

But while it sounds obvious, the companies making these connected gadgets have been reluctant to use Wi-Fi. That's because Wi-Fi requires a lot of power, and that's a huge problem for any device that needs to be tiny, cheap, and able to run on a single charge for months or even years at a time.

HaLow is meant for fitness trackers, home sensors, and other tiny gadgets

So now, the group behind Wi-Fi is doing something about it. It's announcing a new type of Wi-Fi today that's meant to work on low-power devices. It'll travel farther and even do a better job of traveling through walls. Basically, it's an all around better option for smart home and IoT devices, at least if these claims hold up.

The new type of Wi-Fi is being called Wi-Fi HaLow (pronounced "halo") and will be an extension of the upcoming 802.11ah standard. The Wi-Fi Alliance intends to begin certifying HaLow products sometime in 2018, but the first of them may begin shipping shortly before then.

Essentially, this is Wi-Fi's answer to Bluetooth. HaLow is supposed to end up inside of fitness trackers, home sensors, security cameras, and an assortment of other single-purpose home gadgets. Wi-Fi is already inside of some of those things — like cameras — but getting inside of wearables and sensors is going to be a fight. HaLow will truly need to be a better option than Bluetooth. The Wi-Fi Alliance won't mention Bluetooth by name, but it implies that HaLow is comparable. "HaLow will provide similar characteristics in terms to battery life to technologies that are out there today," says Kevin Robinson, the alliance's marketing VP.

"The alliance sees HaLow playing a large role in the IoT."

If HaLow really can do what the alliance says it can, it would be a big deal. It's essentially promising to do everything Bluetooth can, but at a longer range and with the ability to connect directly to your router, and therefore the internet. You should be skeptical of whether it can pull that off, but HaLow has the advantage of building on top of an enormously successful existing standard. Our phones and routers will need upgraded Wi-Fi chips to work with HaLow products, but presumably that'll come in time, just as 5GHz Wi-Fi quickly arrived after its introduction.

The reason that HaLow seems to have Wi-Fi superpowers is that it's operating on a much better slice of spectrum. It'll be in the 900MHz range, which has better reach and penetration than the 2.4GHz and 5GHz range that existing Wi-Fi operates in. (But, like existing Wi-Fi, it'll be in operating in unlicensed spectrum, so there may be interferences.)

Obviously, there are limitations

There does, of course, have to be a downside. And there is: HaLow isn't going to be as good at quickly transferring data. This isn't Wi-Fi for browsing the web; it's for transferring small bits of data on infrequent occasions. Device manufacturers can, to some extent, customize HaLow to their needs to get faster transfers, but that'll happen at the expense of battery life.

From the sound of it, it'll be two years before we even see the beginning of HaLow's invasion of the smart home. But the smart home — and, more broadly, the Internet of Things — is only just starting to take shape in a sensible way, so HaLow may not be too late to the party. "The alliance sees HaLow playing a large role in the IoT," Robinson says. But even he admits, Wi-Fi isn't likely to be the only standard. "No one expects that the Internet of Things will consolidate on a single connectivity technology."

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