Consumer Wi-Fi on the Rise, Spilling Into the Workplace

Back in 2001, few analysts expected then-consumer-grade Wi-Fi to broadly penetrate the workplace, much less surpass Ethernet for enterprise network access. Today, a decade later, there’s a new Wi-Fi tidal wave gathering speed on the horizon.

According to a new survey published by the Wi-Fi Alliance, two-thirds of consumers now insist upon Wi-Fi when buying any new phone or tech item. This mirrors ABI Research stats: During 4Q10, consumer electronics and handsets represented over half of all Wi-Fi shipments, with 18 to 22 percent compound annual growth expected through 2015. Much of this surging demand comes from Millenials. 75 percent would rather skip a latte than Wi-Fi, while 67 percent spend more time on Wi-Fi than watching the boob tube.

For enterprises, these findings portend a future packed with bring-your-own Wi-Fi gadgets – from stationary devices like printers and projectors to portable – even wearable – communicators. But how these new devices connect is changing. With Wi-Fi Direct, users no longer need access points (or IT blessing) to communicate. Instead, Wi-Fi Direct gadgets find each other to form as-needed peer-to-peer connections, secured with a single button-push or PIN.

Expansion is good for everyone

According to Wi-Fi Alliance spokesperson Sarah Morris, this market explosion may be driven by consumers, but will also boost businesses.

“More Wi-Fi chips being sold is a benefit to everyone,” said Morris. “Personal and enterprise product interests differ, but sometimes move in parallel–for example, Wi-Fi video conferencing. Where needs intersect, enterprises can get a lift from mass market prices and greater choice.”

This has already proven true for smartphones, which trail only laptops as the Wi-Fi device most likely to be purchased in 2011. Although some companies have resisted employee-liable phones, most now embrace them to some degree, expanding mobility at lower cost. “Diverse handsets [like iPhones and Androids] have resulted in far greater choice, and their adoption is driving Wi-Fi farther into enterprises and small businesses,” said Morris.

Power to the people

Today, only a handful of products are Wi-Fi Direct certified, including one Android smartphone and five video devices. But the Alliance expects Wi-Fi Direct-capable consumer products to blossom because it simplifies use and eliminates external dependencies. “By reusing a device’s existing radio to support direct connection to other devices, Wi-Fi Direct greatly expands Wi-Fi use cases,” said Morris. “Communication can now take place anywhere, without requiring an access point or setup.”

Many of the use cases driving Wi-Fi Direct – wireless photo sharing, multi-user gaming, video streaming – are consumer-oriented. However, employers are likely to find many interesting business use cases. “For example, in conference centers, Wi-Fi Direct can enable walk-up-and-print centers and wireless connections between laptops and projectors,” said Morris.

However, that independence also raises a few concerns. In-building spectrum–already limited–will now be shared by Wi-Fi Direct. (This trend is already being felt today with personal mobile hotspots.) Furthermore, Wi-Fi Direct devices can connect to each other at the same time that they connect to an infrastructure-mode access point – a scenario some companies may want to control, even ban. According to Morris, Wi-Fi Direct includes enterprise-friendly features that were designed to address these concerns.

“First, every connection is automatically secured with WPA2–there is no such thing as an open Wi-Fi Direct connection, and users must [explicitly] access any connection request,” she said. “Wi-Fi Direct devices are required to announce themselves, which lets IT know what is on-prem and set [policies] related to Wi-Fi Direct use.”

For example, access points may optionally deny connections by devices simultaneously engaged in Wi-Fi Direct communication. Another option would let access points send commands to Wi-Fi Direct devices regarding desired coexistence mode, channel, and power limitations. But Morris said that it’s too early to tell how enterprise-class products are going to implement Wi-Fi Direct or make use of these “enterprise-friendly” options.

Looking into 2012 – and beyond

After 11 years and over 9,000 Wi-Fi certified products, the Wi-Fi Alliance isn’t done. In fact, it’s branching out to target new vertical and horizontal market needs.

Two new programs are already well underway to further increase throughput: Wi-Fi certified 60 GHz and Wi-Fi certified Very High Throughput in 5 GHz. The former is focused on in-room use cases, like streaming uncompressed HD video between media players and TVs, while the latter will ensure interoperability between longer-reach IEEE 802.11ac standard products. Both are slated for launch in 2012, but Morris speculated that early “pre-standard” products might emerge by the end of this year.

Another program is underway to specify Wi-Fi certified hotspots. “Here, we’re looking to provide secure and easy authentication for hotspots, which will enable other initiatives underway elsewhere, like roaming between hotspots and hotspot operators,” said Morris. Little is publically known about this program, but this could be the secret to finally making 802.1X (and by extension, WPA2-Enterprise) broadly usable in public hotspots.

But one program of keen interest to businesses–Voice Enterprise–has been simmering on the stove for several years. When asked about this program, Morris said “This is an ambitious program focused on a very demanding environment. Moving from the group of proprietary solutions available today to an interoperable standards-based environment is ambitious. But growth in mobile Wi-Fi handsets has increased the value of interoperable solutions.” Alliance members are now in the final stages of “plug fest” testing, with certification program launch slated for mid-2011.

Finally, the Wi-Fi Alliance plans to expand its horizons by gathering Wi-Fi requirements from two key verticals: healthcare equipment manufacturers and smart home appliance manufacturers. The Alliance is also expected to play a role in establishing requirements for outdoor Wi-Fi products that will eventually make use of recently-freed TV white spaces spectrum. These expansions are still in their infancy, but illustrate how the Wi-Fi Alliance can continue to play a useful role by bridging the “knowledge gap” between those who use Wi-Fi devices and those who manufacture them.

But, for IT organizations focused on what must be addressed in 2011, the message is clear: a new crop of Wi-Fi enabled consumer products and handsets are headed your way. Many of them are going to support Wi-Fi Direct – if not in 2011, then certainly by 2012. Ignore this explosive growth at your own risk–just because they’re consumer Wi-Fi products does NOT keep them out of your business facilities or away from your business data. Look for ways to leverage these new products, to monitor their use, and to assert control where necessary.

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