A Peek at Wi-Fi's Future: Simpler and Faster

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Just as we were all getting used to the current generation of Wi-Fi, the next one is starting to hit stores. And even though it's not quite finished, engineers are already working on the generation after that.

But never fear. No need to be confused about which Wi-Fi device to buy next. The Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade group, is looking out for you.

When it stamps its "Wi-Fi-certified" label on a product, you can be assured that the product has been tested, approved and works with other next-generation devices plus all of your old Wi-Fi equipment.

"There's another big wave of enhancements coming from Wi-Fi," said Edgar Figueroa, CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance. "People should be excited about it."

The Alliance, whose 530 members include nearly every company making Wi-Fi products, was founded in 1999 when variations of incompatible 802.11b (the technical name for the first variety of Wi-Fi) were floating around. The Alliance put an end to incompatibility between devices and for every 802.11 generation since, it questions, tests and retests every product heading to stores.

Figueroa filled us in with what's new and what's next in Wi-Fi:

Passpoint: Instant Security at Public Hotspots

If you've used Wi-Fi at an airport, café or other hotspot, the process takes a few steps, especially if encryption is involved. The new Passpoint technology eliminates manual interaction by allowing devices to instantly connect to hotspots at the highest security available.

One example of how Passport can work: When you step inside the café, Passport checks your credentials, notices you're an existing customer at the café or through another service (like home Internet) and then connects you automatically. If the provider also happens to be your home TV provider, you may get extra services at the public hotspot.

"Your phone or tablet will have your credentials. When you go to Starbucks ( SBUX), it will send your credentials (to the hotspot) that say, 'I pay a premium for this show.' And the service provider will authenticate you and you'll get a better service. And if you don't have that, at least you'll be connected security," Figueroa said.

But keep in mind, Passpoint isn't built just for consumers. Companies, like cable TV and mobile-phone services, hope to make money off it. They could use it to for marketing purposes and charge monthly fees to customers who want that convenient hotspot option.

Miracast: Simpler Screen Sharing

Miracast is a simpler way to share video or other media between two devices wirelessly. Sharing could connect automatically or with the press of a button. While this may sound similar to DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) or Apple's ( AAPL) Airplay, the key difference is Miracast works without a Wi-Fi network. It's not proprietary and multiple companies are backing the technology and want to put it in their set-top boxes, TVs and other screens. Also key: Miracast works with Hollywood movies and copy-protected material.

Technically, Miracast is built on top of Wi-Fi Direct, a technology that allows two devices to securely connect over Wi-Fi without being near a Wi-Fi hotspot. Miracast focuses on video and screens so, for example, if the kids are hogging the living-room TV, parents can stream their favorite channel from a compatible set-top box to a tablet computer.

The Alliance just began certifying devices. Expect more Miracast-ready devices -- including the LG Optimus G smartphone and Samsung Echo-P Series TV -- to show up later this year. Market researcher IHS iSuppli projects 1.5 billion Miracast devices will ship in 2016.

802.11ac: More Than Double the Speed of Wireless N

This new version of Wi-Fi more than doubles the performance and speeds common today. But it's so new -- and won't be final until mid-2013 -- it doesn't even have a name. Most call it 802.11ac.

The first "draft AC" routers began popping up last spring, thanks to chipmakers like Broadcom ( BRCM). Speed claims are at 1-gigabit per second, compared to today's Wireless N technology, at 450-megabits per second. Faster speeds mean faster streaming of high-definition video and audio and no lag in gaming activities. (In reality, Wi-Fi speeds are never as fast as touted due to many factors, like wireless interference, walls and distance.)

Figueroa says that if you buy a new "draft AC" device today, it will likely be compatible with the final standard. "There are potentially some risks but as we've seen from the 11n experience, all of our industry players are committed to interoperability," he said.

Other issues AC has right now is devices are expensive and there aren't many devices available. Nearly every major Wi-Fi brand has an AC router for sale, but AC adapters are rare.

Currently, no TVs, laptops or smartphones include AC. To get the top speeds, all the devices must have the AC chip inside. AC products should become more plentiful later next year once the standard is final.

The promise is gigabit speeds, technically doable because 802.11ac uses multiple channels and streams to send and receive data. The common metaphor is a highway. Earlier versions of Wi-Fi (A, B and G) were limited to one lane or "stream." Wireless N quadrupled the number of lanes used to move data back and forth -- and widened the highway. The new AC doubles it again.

Besides more streams, AC operates at the higher, less crowded wireless frequency of 5 GHz. Comparably, Wireless N operates at 2.4 GHz, which is used by garage remotes, baby monitors and microwave ovens.

AC routers are getting good reviews at CNET and PC World. If you're willing to take a gamble, splurging on an AC router is a future-proof investment.

"You should always look at a router and consider where you want to be two years from now. Like any other infrastructure investment, look at existing requirements and where you will be in the future," said Sandeep Harpalani, a manager of wireless networking at Netgear ( NTGR), which introduced its first AC routers in May.

802.11ad: Hello, Multi-Gigabit Wi-Fi!

Nicknamed WiGig, this futuristic Wi-Fi has been in the works publicly since 2009. Technically called 802.11ad, it will be a major performance upgrade from AC by going up to 7-gigabits per second.

The reason it can speed up dramatically is AD will add communication over a new frequency of 60 GHz. But to make sure it works with older Wi-Fi devices, AD products should also support the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies used by today's Wireless N and the older B and G Wi-Fi.

"The 60 GHz is in-room only so it can allow islands of very high capacity and used in devices like wireless docking," Figueroa said. "Most (AD) products will be tri-band."

There's no timetable yet on WiGig, although a WiGig Alliance has already been formed. The WiGig and Wi-Fi Alliances plan to work together to certify products for interoperability when the technologies are ready.

"I'm being truthful here when I say we're transforming your wireless experience," Figueroa said. "It can happen because all of the folks that need to be at the table are here."

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own.

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