What the Wi-Fi Nerds Are Saying – The WLPC 2020 Recap

This past February the annual trip to Phoenix for the Wireless LAN Professionals Conference – known as #WLPC – took place. Named by some as “Wi-Fi Geek Week”, the WLPC conference is an annual conference that brings together about 400 of the top minds in the wireless industry from around the globe. This conference is set in Phoenix, Arizona and takes place over the course of 6 days. The first 3 days are dedicated to boot camps where industry experts lead classes to teach some pretty hard-core boot camps on everything from wireless design and engineering techniques to security to python.

One of the things that makes the WLPC conference unique and fantastic is the organization and selection of the speeches that are given at the event. About 60% of the attendees are presenters. Leading into the event, everyone is available to submit abstracts of a talk they think that may be important. The Wi-Fi industry is then publicly called upon to vote for the sessions and pick the presentations that they think will be most impactful. Those that get the most votes, get the most time. The format is simple, there are long sessions at 55 minutes, short sessions at 30 minutes and “TEN talks” at 10 minutes each. This format plays particularly well to the audience as the day is broken up into a very non-monotonous and digestible schedule, with tons of techy giveaways and plenty of breaks.

So what were the nerds talking about this year?

Each year brings conversations that trend along with the rising prominence of technologies that are available, coming soon, or on the roadmap for the wireless industry. This year was no exception.

New technologies

From CBRS, artificial intelligence, machine learning, location-based services, and down to the currently deployed Wi-Fi 6 equipment, there was no shortage of conversation about new and upcoming technologies. Here’s what we were chatting about!

WIFI6

One of the main sessions focused on 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6. This technology has equipment that is already available for purchase and installation, however it is not widely deployed. The first long session of the event focused specifically on Wi-Fi 6. Wes Purvis did a tremendous job digging into what the technology landscape currently looks like for Wi-Fi 6. Yes, there are tons of equipment manufacturers that have made wireless access points available, however client devices have not been as widely deployed. There are only a handful of ready-made devices available for purchase today, but chipsets are finally being standardize so that over the next 12 to 18 months we will see how much more rapid adoption of this technology.

At one point in the presentation, Wes asked those in the room to stand that had deployed Wi-Fi 6. About 30% of the room stood. He then asked how many people had problems deploying Wi-Fi 6, and no one sat down. He proved an incredible point: that even though the technology had been included in some form or fashion by multiple vendors even as early as 2018, there were so many issues with Client devices that it was virtually impossible to have a pain-free deployment. Check the presentaiton out here:

CBRS

Andrew von Nagy has always had a knack for being able to impeccably explain technology to technologists. At WLPC 2020, he not only brought his A game to the presentations he was a part of, he brought equipment, labs, and a real world deployment. Now many have talked about CBRS but this was a great opportunity to see Celona in action and be able to peek under the hood of one of the most exciting new wireless technologies in years.

CBRS gives you the ability to provide LTE services using band 48 in environments and deployments that are more typical to Wi-Fi than DAS or LTE. The equipment, referred to as an eNodeB versus an access point, is similar in size, shape and power requirements. A common rule of thumb would be one eNodeB for every 4 APS .. more or less. But instead of just guessing at it, one of the tools that Celona makes is an incredible capacity and coverage planner with an integrated mapping tool which makes it much easier to plan and design a CBRS network. Check it out:

From an actual functionality perspective, at one point there were 40 CBRS devices connected to the same eNodeB streaming a Zoom meeting. This is made possible by 150 MHz of available spectrum, doled out by a centralized spectrum management server that each eNodeB is required to connect to and get their frequency to broadcast on in blocks from 10MHz up to 70Mhz. Seeing it in action was fascinating as it made it a real technology that people could actually get their hands on versus something that had been talked about over the course of the last five years.

But Celona wasn’t the only one talking about CBRS. There were numerous side-conversations, deep dives on the tech, and event Juniper Mist chimed in. Needless to say, I think CBRS was close to top of mind this year, which is awesome to me. I’m glad to see people thinking more about the wireless overall instead of just the “WiFi” side of it! Check out the Mist presentation here:

Location-based services

With the integration of the UWB U1 chip set in the iPhone 11, location based services started to get some more attention in 2019. Wi-Fi location-based services have always been something that people have wanted to adopt, however, the amount of accuracy involved has left something to be desired. When BLE was starting to gain traction with inclusion on APs, and as it has started to proliferate the marketplace, it seemed to be the next new “thing” in location-based services. How’s that working out so far? I think too many people thought of it as the QR-Code of WiFi: great concept, but I mean, really? Show me a use case.

When you compare BLE to Ultra Wideband, there are some huge differences. Wi-Fi based location services will give you about 1 to 3m accuracy. BLE will give you 1m to 1 foot accuracy, whereas UWB is touting down to 3cm accuracy. Mist is coming on strong with the partnerships in this space as they announced some new working partnerships with UWB technology at the event. They’ve already firmly planted their feet in the BLE market with their implementation of the VBLE product integrated into Mist APs (even a standalone version, the BT 21, that is BLW only.) Aruba, through their Meridian acquisition a few years back, seemed like they were going to be a pretty strong contender for this. The only problem is, Meridian costs an arm, a leg, and your firstborn child. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, I’m sure there’s some use cases out there for it, I just haven’t found one yet. It’s incredible technology but for that price, it’s just not worth it.

WiFi Radar you say?

Now, there was something else that was pretty cool going around with regard to location services, but it didn’t have to do with tracking devices as much as it has to do with identifying environments. The Mist partnership with Aerial didn’t get much coverage of the event, but there were a few side conversations about it. Integrating Wi-Fi Radar data support and components into the dashboard is something that’s still an early technology, however may have some impact especially in some awesome places including the healthcare and security industries.

The concept is simple, it uses the Wi-Fi Radiowaves to determine presence, movement, and other physical information in the environment. For a sweet example of this, Ars just did a write-up on the Plume Motion integration into their Superpod nodes to act as a additional overlay to a security system.

802.11be

If you thought Wi-Fi 6 could give you some awesome capacity and throughput speeds, then let’s talk about Wi-Fi 7. 802.11be, which will probably get the blessing of the name Wi-Fi 7, is one of those things that’s “coming down the pipe” in the next few years. There are 320 MHz channels, versus 160 MHz in WiFi6, 16 streams using MIMO, blah blah blah.

The thing that I like the most about 802.11be is when you start talking about training multiple bands together to deliver packets as well as coordinating multiple access points to be able to transmit and receive instead of just a single radio with a 16 spatial streams. It reminds me of the video game Bolo where if you placed your pillboxes in the right spots, your opponents tank would roll om and get absolutely obliterated. By that same token, imagine multiple access points all focused in on your client device sending pieces and parts of data in an organized fashion to get you everything you need as quickly as possible. Should be pretty cool. Check out this chat from Mark Raats at #WLPC this year!

802.15.4

Something that was not on the agenda but provided an incredible lunchtime conversation between Peter Mackenzie, myself, and Jennifer Huber, was about some of the underlying standards that many of the upcoming wireless technologies are based on: 802.15.4.

This IEEE standard defines low-Rate Wireless Personal Area Networks (LR-PWANs.) I think about Zigbee, the aforementioned Ultra Wideband, and some BLE. The focus here is on low cost, low speed networks within 30’ and data rates of less than 250 kbit/s. It operates in the 800, 900, and 2450 MHz area. It acts like WiFi with CSMA/CA and can be built in either star or self-organizing organizing mesh style networks. It has the ability to put devices into power-saving mode to help with battery life by decreasing transmissions. Sound familiar?

This is one of those things that isn’t necessarily driving capacity or throughput, but is increasing efficiency on networks by segmenting out a piece of the spectrum for more efficient communications using more efficient spectrum for particular devices.

Although there have been some revisions of it, the latest, 802.15.4z is supported by people like Apple, Hyundai, Kia, zebra, and more. This is the implementation of Ultra Wideband that made headlines in 2019 with the introduction of the iPhone 11. There was an incredible demo of the way that two iPhones can seek each other out in a crowded location by pointing them to each other. This illustrates the ability for UWB to show off some of it’s “3 centimeter accuracy.”

This type of exact location services are being touted for use for secure keyless access for vehicles and entry into buildings, secure proximity based mobile payments, and some incredible retail applications. On the task force page for for 802.15.4z, it mentions “a single coin cell can provide constant visibility for years” and if you think about that in a retail location, you’re talking about being able to tell you not just where the beer aisle is in the store, but where an exact brand of beer is located on the shelf with the appropriate low-cost sensor and application. Couple this with the hope for location-based services and RTLS, and you can see how one feeds into the other.

Design & Engineering

As usual, a significant portion of the show is dedicated to exposing tried-and-true techniques as well as new tips and technologies for the design and engineering of Wi-Fi networks. Whether it is the ability to do a site survey on a NetAlly handheld device, the latest features of the community-driven WLANPi or a new software update from Ekahau or Wi-Fi Explorer, the sessions dug deep into how to help us all do our jobs to the best of our abilities what amplifying your productivity using the latest and greatest tools.

As mentioned, the items that stand out for me were how far along the WLANPi project has come. It has turned into something that has gone from a “cool gadget” to something that is more than absolutely useful. Whether it’s deployed as a sensor to send client side experience data back to a central splunk server (taking on the likes of the Aruba Cape sensor, NetBeez, 7 signal and weybot) or being used as a network performance monitor and validation tool, that little box is becoming more powerful by the day. I even heard a conversation about how to take what it’s doing and integrate that functionality into other commonly used components in our industry!! Check out Jerry’s update:

The NetAlly survey functionality integrated into the AirCheck was definitely a highlight for me. I’ve been waiting for Air Magnet to do something for years, as I think we all have. With the spin off to NetAlly and a fresh coat of green paint, it seems like that time is coming. While Ekahau has dominated the market with the sidekick and connect package, this gives you a dedicated tool with a great history of scanning networks and allows you to do site surveys in the palm of your hand. No fumbling around connecting devices, no keeping two devices charged, and complete support for cloud connectivity to upload files. I’m really looking forward to where this is leading NetAlly.

Personal & Community Growth

One of the continued themes that continues to pop up at WLPC, which is a little different than some of the other conferences that I’ve been to, is personal and community growth. There seems to always be time set aside to talk about personal growth and development of our professional community. This unique sections of talks deals with how to be better individually, while helping grow our community and support each other.

There were a few talks this year that dealt with financial independence, steps to take to start your own consulting company, and how to maximize your time. It’s always great to see everyone in the community be so supportive of everyone trying to accomplish their own personal goals. Whether is starting a new product, launching something into the market, or simply taking the next step in their career, the wireless LAN community always shows of support for each other events events like this.

Part of having a vibrant community is building, growing, and maintaining that community. There were two or three talk specifically dedicated to helping each other recognize the benefits of our community and how to keep it flourishing. Every group has some type of friction, and one thing that makes the WLPC community different is that that friction is usually dealt with head on.

Whether it’s online antics or learning how to Help others, I think this is one thing that makes us truly unique. The support that this kind of open dialogue creates for other individuals who are trying to get involved is tremendous. Recognizing that some people may have some trepidation joining our community if their new, and understanding how to make ourselves more welcoming, only lead to bigger and better things.

The Wi-Fi Awards

For the first time ever and to kick off a new annual tradition, the Wi-Fi Awards celebrated our wireless community. Nominations were held for products, services, people, and organizations. This is a great thing that continues with the above theme of helping our community along by self-recognizing the achievements of others. Check out the award announcements below and a full list of the winners at The Wi-Fi Awards website!

Wrapping it up

Overall, 2020 was a great year for WLPC. The venue was different, the parties were awesome, the knowledge were intense and the overall sessions were full of information. The WiFi Stand scavenger hunt was a huge blast this year for me to do as well! What continues to drive this event is a combination of all this, as well as one absolutely important thing: the wireless LAN community. What a great year Keith, Matthew, Ferney, and everyone who helped!

Can’t wait ’til 2020!

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