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Wi-Fi HaLow, Explained: Low-power, Passable-bandwidth, Extreme Range

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Per the request of many, this post will briefly explain Wi-Fi HaLow, a new standard that extends the use of Wi-Fi to low-bandwidth devices.

Since the beginning, Wi-Fi has evolved to be "faster" by increasing the frequencies and bandwidth. That approach comes with increasing costs via shorter ranges, higher broadcasting power, or more energy consumption.

The extreme case is WiGig, which uses the super high 60GHz frequency and has proved to be the most short-lived standard in real-world usage due to its limited range.

In more ways than one, Wi-Fi HaLow is the opposite. And it might just be the right way to go for its purpose.

Wi Fi HaLow frequency band
Wi-Fi HaLow vs existing Wi-Fi standards, per the Wi-Fi Alliance.

What is Wi-Fi HaLow?

The name is the friendly moniker for the IEEE 802.11ah wireless networking standard.

First published in 2017 by the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi HaLow (HEY-Low) uses a sub-Gigabit frequency -- 900MHz -- compared to the much higher frequencies of traditional Wi-Fi 4/5/6/7 standards, that include 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz.

It's worth noting that, in the US, Wi-Fi HaLow uses unlicensed bands. As a result, it's easier to adopt and deploy since there are no regulatory barriers.

Wi-Fi HaLow: Extreme range, low power, and enough bandwidth for IoT needs

The way radio waves work, the lower frequency generally means:

  • longer the signal range,
  • less bandwidth,
  • lower broadcasting power required,
  • less energy consumption on the receiving end.

And that's the purpose of Wi-Fi HaLow. The new standard is designed to deliver signals over a vastly more extensive range. Specifically, its range can reach over a mile with sustained rates of around 150Kbps. Shorter distances generally yield higher bandwidth.

The extensive range is always great, but why would anyone want such a slow connection speed? It's simple. While the range gain is tangible, the speed is relative.

IoT devices and bandwidth

Fast or slow is a matter of application. Many networking devices, particularly those of the Internet of Things (IoT) crowd, don't need a lot of bandwidth.

For example, a gate sensor generally has a few simple statuses -- open, closed, locked, or unlocked -- and that information only needs a few kilobytes of data to transfer. Similarly, the on, off, or dimming command to a light bulb doesn't require much data.

And on the more demanding end, a security camera only needs a few Mbps to deliver live footage. That's especially true with modern video compression methods.

Digital data in brief

As you read this page, keep in mind that each character on the screen, including a space between two words, generally requires one byte of data.

The phrase "Dong Knows Tech," with no quotes, requires at least 15 bytes, and likely more since the formatting -- such as capitalization and font -- also needs extra storage space.

Byte -- often in kilobytes (kB), megabytes (MB), or gigabytes (GB) -- is generally used to convey storage space. For data transmission, we use bits.

One byte equals eight bits.

One million (1,000,000) bits = 1 Megabit (Mb).

Megabits per second (Mbps) -- the number of megabits being manipulated in one second -- is the common unit for data transmission nowadays. Based on that, the following are common terms:

  • Fast Ethernet: A connection standard that can deliver up to 100Mbps.
  • Gigabit: That's short for Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) and generally means transmission speeds in Gigabit per second (Gbps). This is currently the most popular wired connection standard. 1Gbps = 1000Mbps.
  • Gig+: A connection that's faster than 1Gbps but slower than 2Gbps. It often applies to 2x2 Wi-Fi 6/6E or Internet speeds.
  • Multi-Gigabit: That's multiple Gigabits -- a link that's 2Gbps or faster.
  • Multi-Gig: A new BASE-T wired connection standard that delivers 2.5GbE, 5Gbe, or 10GbE over CAT5e (or a higher grade) network cables, depending on the devices involved, and is also backward compatible with Fast Ethernet and Gigabit.

Multi-Gig explained: Faster-than-Gigabit and beyond

The point is, in certain applications, high bandwidth is irrelevant. But these low-bandwidth devices do need to get connected. And currently, we have two different approaches for low-bandwidth (IoT) connectivity:

The first is to use traditional Wi-Fi with them. In this case, apart from the short battery life, these devices can also burden the existing network. They slow it down significantly -- as detailed in this post on the subject.

The second, and also recommended, approach is to use special wireless standards -- such as Zigbee, Thread, or Z-Wave. In this case, the standards' hub is the only networking device that connects to the network -- via traditional Wi-Fi or a network cable -- with an IP address.

While these special wireless standards help with the performance and battery life issues, the low-bandwidth devices themselves are hard to manage since they are not part of the IP network -- they don't even support the IP protocol natively. And then, there's the lack of resilience: if the hub stop working, all connected IoT devices become useless.

Wi-Fi Halow is the combo solution that simplifies connectivity. With it, all device types can use Wi-Fi and be part of the overall IP network without adversely affecting one another's connection speed. That's the idea, anyway.

Wi-Fi Halow (vs Wi-Fi 6E): General specifications

As a Wi-Fi thing, Wi-Fi Halow's range and sustained rates change depending on specs, environment, and specific hardware. The table below shows how this standard differs from Wi-Fi 6E, the latest "normal" standard in use.

Wi-Fi HalowWi-Fi 6E
Wi-Fi Band900MHz6GHz
Maximum Frequency Width Available
(the band's total width)
26MHz
(from 902MHz to 928MHz)
1200MHz
Channel Width
(the portion of the band's width used at a particular time)
1/2/4/8/16MHz20/40/80/160MHz
DFS Channel UseNoNo
OFDMA SupportYes
(narrow bands)
Yes
(wide bands)
Highest QAM256-QAM4K-QAM
Maximum Bandwidth per Stream
(ideal conditions and range)
From: 4Mbps @ 1MHz
To: 86.7Mbps @ 16MHz
From: 150Mbps @ 20MHz
To: 1200Mbps @ 160MHz
Wi-Fi SecurityWPA3WPA3
Native IP SupportYesYes
Power ConsumptionExtremely low with multiple power-saving modes
(coin battery-operated device can last for months or years)
High with TWT
(suitable for handled or plugged-in devices only)
Effective Range
(within line of sight)
β‰ˆ 1 mile (1.61 km)β‰ˆ 75 feet (23 meters)
Wall/Object PenetrationExcellentMediocre
Intended UsageIoT and low-bandwidth devicesGeneral network devices
Hardware specifications: Wi-Fi HaLow vs Wi-Fi 6E

Wi-Fi HaLow follows the same general Wi-Fi rules:

  1. The narrower the channel (in MHz) means:
    • The less information it can carry -- the lower the speed.
    • The more stable the connection is.
    • The longer range and the better object penetration.
  2. Not all hardware will support all the channel widths, QAM, or other options available.
  3. Susceptible to interference caused by devices sharing the same band. For example, ham radios and Z-Wave devices use the same frequency as HaLow.
  4. The performance of a particular device is always that of the lowest denominator involved and depends greatly on the environment.

Realistically, we can expect Wi-Fi HaLow to deliver solid bandwidth of around a few megabits per second (Mbps) over hundreds of feet in range. And that's good enough for the standard's target applications.

Availability and usage

Just like Wi-Fi 6E, to take advantage of Wi-Fi HaLow, we need new hardware entirely.

On the broadcasting side, this standard can be added to any existing network via an access point, similar to adding Wi-Fi 6E. And eventually, there might be routers with Wi-Fi HaLow built-in.

Currently, there are only a few Wi-Fi HaLow broadcasters worldwide, none in the US. But that might change.

This Tonton WiFi HaLow Signal Booster kit supposedly extends your traditional Wi-Fi network by using Wi-Fi HaLow as the backhaul link. While it might work technically, it's useless considering the standard's slow speed.

On the receiving end, we'll need IoT devices with HaLow built-in. And that might take a while.

The takeaway

Wi-Fi HaLow completes the Wi-Fi family by delivering the much-needed-yet-so-far-underrated portion of connectivity: the combo of extensive range, long battery life, and low bandwidth.

When widely available, Wi-Fi HaLow will gracefully solve the problem with the increasingly common use of "smart" devices, which have been fragmented between multiple wireless standards, including traditional Wi-Fi, where things get problematic.

Wi-Fi HaLow will happen in due time. While the same as existing Wi-Fi in principle, it's a new type of application in and of itself.

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9 thoughts on “Wi-Fi HaLow, Explained: Low-power, Passable-bandwidth, Extreme Range”

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  1. I’m surprised that you did not mention Z-Wave in this post, considering HaLow was created as a direct rival, using the same low-bandwidth and long range 900MHz band.
    It is also doomed to have the same cross-region issues – Z-Wave uses 908.4 in the US, 868.4 in CEPT countries, 919.8 in Australia etc.

    Reply
      • I’m not sure to what extent Z-Wave is on the way out. It seems that the 800 series is still actively developed by Silicon Labs (who is also a key stakeholder in Matter) – specifically banking on its long range characteristics. Maybe HaLow-based Matter will eventually render Z-Wave obsolete (or assimilate it), but we’re not there yet.

        Reply
  2. Oh wow. I will be excited to see this being adopted. I have a few IoT ideas for outside of my wifi range (electronic gate etc) and this will save having to work on unsecured 433.92MHz or other chip addons

    Reply
  3. Thanks a lot for this informative post. Minor point: I suggest you use β€œdimming” rather than β€œdeeming” concerning light bulbs. Thanks again.

    Reply

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