If Apple doesn't launch an 802.11ah router, will anyone?

Robert Blake
R. Blake|02.01.16

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Robert Blake
February 1st, 2016
If Apple doesn't launch an 802.11ah router, will anyone?

Mock up product image for Apple AirPort HaLow RouterLast month, news sites of various stripes lit up with a birth announcement: the Wi-Fi Alliance had delivered the final version of a bouncing baby standard: 802.11ah. Christened "HaLow", the latest addition to the Wi-Fi family brings a very different set of enhancements than most of its earlier well-known siblings. The popular progression of 802.11b, -g, -a, -n, and -ac brought sequentially higher data rates and frequencies, pushing the principles of Moore's law into wireless networking.

By contrast, 802.11h lowers the frequency into the 900MHz bands that most consumers will remember from the earliest days of cordless, mostly analog, land-line telephones. Reports point to a data rate peaking at 40Mbit/s, less than the 802.11g specification that became widespread over ten years ago. On the other hand, it promises a range of up to 1km (over half a mile)—nearly four times any other Wi-Fi variety. The lower frequency means that it can penetrate walls and other obstacles better. And the combination of these factors mean that you can obtain a usable signal in practical circumstances with far less power—reasons why cellular phones have used these and similar lower-frequency bands for two decades—making HaLow ideal for Internet of Things devices, as the Wi-Fi Alliance announcement duly notes. It is arguably the antithesis of Wi-Gig (802.11ad), which is high-frequency, high-power, but short-range and mostly useful in line-of-sight settings.

Even without the IoT appeal that is de rigeur for almost any new wireless technology in 2016, many business and residential customers with thicker or metal-laden walls may be happy to get any usable signal through to their devices. So they all may have posed the same question during CES this year: "where are all the HaLow products"?

The timing of the Wi-Fi Alliance's announcement seems tailor-made for a troupe of companies to announce new hardware supporting the standard at CES. Instead, so far there seems to be absolutely zero visible interest from end-user device manufacturers. Contrast this with the glut of routers and USB adapters that rushed to market with "Draft-N" support early in that standard's lifecycle. And while it didn't suffer the same "Draft" marketing language, it may surprise some to hear that the 802.11ac standard wasn't approved until January of 2014, despite having shipping products using the standard more than 18 months before. So with HaLow already given final approval, and with seemingly quite a bit going for it, where are the product announcements?

Besides the unusual focus on something other than faster peak speeds, HaLow has another challenge that no other 802.11 standard has had in a long time: competition.

Wi-Fi has been the way to get your laptop, tablet or phone online wirelessly, and the only things resembling an alternative have been cellular technologies—which (so far) have served a very different use-case with fairly little overlap. There simply were no alternatives. In contrast, low-power, IoT-friendly wireless protocols abound. Bluetooth is the obvious entrenched competitor, despite its drawbacks (mainly short range), but the list goes on: ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread, LightwaveRF, and more. Worse, most big tech players are already backing one horse or another. Google via Nest led the launch of Thread a year and a half ago and pushes it as a feature of Brillo. Samsung was on board with that protocol as well, but its SmartThings platform also supports ZigBee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth. LG is also playing the field with its Smart Thinq hub by supporting those protocols and more. Really, Google is even taking this scattershot tack with its OnHub devices, building in ZigBee and Bluetooth besides its own Thread protocol—even if they're not turned on yet.

It's a crowded field with multiple generations of mature hardware in some cases. Perhaps that's why even as far back as October, some analysts were declaring 802.11ah dead before it arrived. The prediction is plausible, and the month since the standard was announced has seen no visible industry movement yet—certainly no one is telegraphing that they will be putting out any HaLow consumer devices or routers. And with IoT-mania already in full swing and the major device companies invested in their own physical layers, it's not beyond reason to conclude that manufacturers have little motivation to change that.

Of course, there is one company in the Internet of Things market that hasn't adopted any of these low-power competitors: Apple.

The HomeKit protocol that Apple announced a year and a half ago with iOS 8 is conspicuous in that it doesn't have any specialized physical networking layer like ZigBee or Thread, and relies instead on existing networking standards that the iPhone already supported: Bluetooth LE and WiFi. This has a lot of advantages, particularly with regard to WiFi where leveraging the thoroughly-scrutinized security of WPA2 and the ubiquity of an IP-based networking layer removes a lot of important question-marks when compared with creating or adopting a new or less well-travelled standard.

But while arguably making things simpler for HomeKit device makers, this leaves them at the mercy of those protocols and their respective weaknesses. HomeKit devices that communicate with Bluetooth LE can be battery powered but stop working when you walk out of range of them, and WiFi-based devices can bounce off of your router but have to be plugged into the wall for power. So, if you are laying in bed upstairs and don't remember if you locked your Bluetooth door lock, you probably won't be able to connect to it to find out. Those are precisely the kinds of problems that competing standards like ZigBee and Z-Wave solve with low power and mesh networking—and those are precisely the benefits that 802.11ah can bring to Apple's HomeKit ecosystem.

That established, consider a few things about Apple's current hardware lineup.

Apple sells the AirPort Extreme Base Station home networking router, and the current, 6th-generation model was released in June 2013—several generations worth of time for any other networking gear manufacturer and the second-longest gap between refreshes in the history of that product range. Their other home networking product—the AirPort Express—is even older by a year. While Apple's approach to these non-core-business devices makes it difficult to call an update for both overdue, at least it must be assumed that their replacements are by now well along the way to production (or perhaps that there isn't any update coming).

Then there's a particular oddity of HomeKit as it pertains to hardware: the other conspicuous difference about HomeKit is that it doesn't have a "hub" device like virtually every other competing ecosystem—your iPhone is the hub. Except, it does have a hub, because it still needed one: what good is setting your lights on a schedule for your vacation if your iPhone goes with you to Tahiti? Something had to stay home to keep things running. What's surprising is that instead of leveraging the AirPort Extreme or Express for this role, the AppleTV was chosen. There are a few reasons this makes sense—it had a more general-purpose processor and more horsepower and it already had both WiFi and Bluetooth, for instance. Still, it's a bit odd to make an entertainment device (and one that Apple was still calling a "hobby" at the time) the center of that network instead of the device that's already at the center of the network.

There are multiple ways to interpret that set of circumstances. One analysis would say that Apple doesn't need to be in the home router business anymore and is planning their exit—they arguably only entered the then virtually non-existent market so that there would be an access point for their new candy-colored iBooks and iMacs to connect with, and that's far from a problem today. But if they are developing a 7th generation AirPort Extreme Base Station, the addition of HaLow support would make a great deal of sense and could even be crucial to HomeKit's overcoming its self-imposed limitations. And it would give them the opportunity to bring that HomeKit hub functionality back to where it arguably belongs—something they may have needed to wait for new hardware to be able to do.

Apple adding early support for HaLow to its router hardware would allow HomeKit device manufacturers to adopt the standard, significantly improving their devices' capabilities. Virtually no software rework would be required since the existing protocol would continue to run over IP at the network layer as it already does over WiFi today. Since the devices would effectively be on the home WiFi network, your iPhone could communicate with them without an 802.11ah hardware upgrade of its own. And they could do most if not all of what WiFi-based HomeKit devices do today, but ditch the power cord.

A few other stars are also aligned that might tend to pull Apple in the direction of baking 802.11ah into a new router.

Current HomeKit certified chipsets are provided by Broadcom, Marvell, and Texas Instruments. Marvell and Broadcom have been reportedly involved in the development of the HaLow specification. However, if they have any chipsets coming out soon they seem to be keeping them close to the vest (though without those giants producing some products the assertion that HaLow is DoA would certainly gain credence). Interestingly though, Imagination Technologies—a long-time Apple collaborator—is one of a few supplier companies that have announced that they're working on 802.11ah chipsets, and as a bonus their design includes a MIPS processor that would likely be able to take on the encryption and other microprocessor loads necessary to implement HomeKit that have plagued some Bluetooth implementations of the protocol. Granted, there's a big difference between IoT chipsets and PowerVR GPUs in iPhones, but at a minimum there is at least one friendly manufacturer willing to take the 802.11ah plunge with Apple should they wish to make a HaLow router device.

Lastly, as some have already noted, a low-power WiFi standard would fit nicely with Apple's new foray into wearables. The Apple Watch needs all the help it can get conserving its battery, and HaLow could conceivably even improve the standby stamina of an iPhone or iPad. And Apple is one of the few companies that could be motivated to tweak both ends of the product set even for somewhat small gains (Asus for instance won't assume you'll buy its routers just to get a small battery boost for your ZenWatch, but Apple Watch customers are more likely to own an AirPort router already).

With their top-end router aging, it stands to reason that Apple has a replacement inbound. With pressure on the premium feature front from Google's OnHub series, we may find a whole different animal in Apple's next networking product, with features no one is yet predicting. But there's a lot of sense in 802.11ah being an important addition. If it is, it may have big implications for HomeKit and the home automation market, and possibly for the relevance of the standard itself.

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