All Things 802.11ac - Question 12: What is the Future of Wi-Fi?

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I want to close today, as I usually like to, with some speculation. I wonder - is .11ac the end of the road for WLAN technology? It would seem that a lot more spectrum will be required, as is the case with .11ad, if we are to progress beyond .11ac and, assuming we’re not going to get that, what future technological innovations are we likely to see? What challenges represent opportunities large enough for additional investment? What can’t we do with 802.11ac and the optimal deployment strategies we already have today? What's on your wish list?
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Craig Mathias

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Posted 5 years ago

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Matthew Gast

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I think one of my big predictions of the past has largely come true. The world is connected, but no longer by physical links. We've reached a point where new college graduates have never had to use Ethernet to get by, and most mobile devices would never contemplate using anything other than a wireless connection.
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Matthew Gast

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What comes next is determined in large part by the questions of participants today - what kind of networks are they building? And I think we've heard some hints at what that means. How does wireless integrate with the existing network edge, with strong security and without costing a fortune in cabling? I expect that we'll see the strong authentication techniques developed for Wi-Fi used all around the network edge, in part because we need to authenticate the APs to the network.
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Craig Mathias

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I know - wireless and especially Wi-Fi as an expectation - pretty amazing for those of us who have been at this for more than two decades... But, really, could you imagine a school, hospital, or any business not having Wi-Fi today? And not needing more capacity?
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Matthew Gast

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Speaking of which, Wi-Fi authentication started off as authenticating devices by authenticating the user who was running the device. Users and devices are two different things. In a laptop world, they were mostly the same, but in a world where we have applications running on devices, it doesn't matter who the user is. The device is merely a way to get at the application. There's no data stored locally, and what matters is that the device is well-controlled and managed, but access to data is mediated by the application, not by the network. Therefore, the network control is based on the device, not as much on the user.
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Craig Mathias

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All network elements should be authenticated. We still don't take security and integrity seriously enough.
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Craig Mathias

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Good point on wire - I wonder if mesh for interconnection will become more popular?
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Matthew Gast

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In my experience, everybody needs mesh. It might be for just one AP out in the parking lot, or to shoot down a stairwell that has low density. I do wonder if part of how we'll deal with future 802.11ac APs is to have a few points of massive backhaul and use an inter-AP mesh to deliver traffic in excess of the Ethernet wire delivering power.
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Craig Mathias

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802.11ad?
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Terry Bates

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In light of recent events with NSA, Snowden, etc. do you expect to see new types of authentication and encryption added to the current standards?
Thank you for your replies Matthew its all very interesting.
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Matthew Gast

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There's an interesting possibility for replacing the pre-shared key authentication in WPA[1|2]-Personal with a cryptographically stronger method called Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE). However, the user interface is exactly the same as the preshared key method: put a password in on both sides and get authenticated.

Given the well-known weaknesses in Wi-Fi's PSK mechanisms, I hope to see that sooner rather than later.
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Nick Lowe, Official Rep

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Incidentally, Aerohive could do with a tighter default configuration on their HTTPS services:

https://www.ssllabs.com/ssltest/analy...
https://www.ssllabs.com/ssltest/analy...
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Terry Bates

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Ok I think that's a little off topic...
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Nick Lowe, Official Rep

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I am slightly surprised WPA2 didn't implement Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS). Why was that Matthew? Perhaps that could come in the future?
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Matthew Gast

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The 802.11 key exchange protocol was defined in an era when there was very limited computing power, and there was a strong desire to be backwards compatible as far as possible.
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Craig Mathias

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The Snowden problem was procedural and mostly personnel-related. I'm not sure if there's a technological defense against untrustworthy staff...
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Matthew Gast

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Well, there's not letting your staff have access, but that does defeat the purpose of building a data center...
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Craig Mathias

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This data is so secret that no one can have access to it - ever.
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Matthew Gast

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And as much as I love Wi-Fi, developments in the protocol will fade into the background. I used to know a fair bit about Ethernet (all the way up from Manchester encoding!), but Ethernet "just works" now. We are getting to the point where Wi-Fi "just works" and future protocol enhancements will be invisible to most people.

As a practical matter, I expect that the future protocol development in Wi-Fi will go along two threads. We'll keep trying to make the protocol faster, but efficiency is the way to go. We're up pretty hard against the practical limits of what we can deliver right now in terms of raw bit rate, so we need to focus on improving protocol efficiency. The second thread is to making services easier. We saw the first bit of that with the 802.11u/Hotspot 2.0/Passpoint effort. (I served as an 802.11u task group officer for several years because I believed strongly in its mission.) There's also the opportunity to build services into network protocols, whether through a specific Wi-Fi protocol or using a service advertisement protocol like Apple's Bonjour.
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Matthew Gast

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A big part of what 802.11ac delivers is the ability to serve many clients at the same time. It's theoretically easy to add capacity to a Wi-Fi network by plopping in more APs, but overlapping APs don't always cleanly add capacity. There's a lot of work to do on the infrastructure side to smoothly add capacity and provide work balancing between multiple APs that are essentially co-located. (This will be vital in the case of the dual-5GHz AP idea that was mentioned earlier today in one of the other threads.)
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Craig Mathias

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We're going to wrap up in a few minutes - any final thoughts?
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Matthew Gast

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And to Craig's point above about authentication and integrity not being taken seriously enough, we're starting to see rules be passed that require full accountability for everybody on the network. The intersection of identity, device, and network usage is ripe for a shake-up, but I don't have a good idea what form it will take.
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Matthew Gast

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Final thought: it's a great time to be in Wi-Fi, whether building networking devices or building networks with them. Ten years ago when I started in Wi-Fi (am I really that old?), there was almost a "why would anybody voluntarily give up all the speed of being wired?" attitude about Wi-Fi. That's not the case any more. To mangle a saying: We have met the future network, and it is (designed by) us. The world is not static. We move, and our networks now do, too. Wi-Fi has been a key enabler of mobility within networks, and I'm pleased to have had a ring-side seat for so long.

In other words, I was right back in 2002 when I opened the first Wi-Fi book I wrote with just four simple words: "People move. Networks don't."
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Craig Mathias

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I put my hands on my first WLAN in 1991. And I've never had any doubts about the ultimate success and viability of what's become known as Wi-Fi. As we discussed, just ry to imagine living without it, and it's easy to see why.

Thanks again for today - and, remember, you get to do it all again at Interop!