If you would have asked me back in January what I thought the year 2020 would look like for High-Density Wi-Fi, I would’ve reeled off several major sporting events including the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as well as large concerts, festivals and conferences that I planned on being a part of this year. I, along with literally every other engineer focused on Wi-Fi was excited to see how far Wi-Fi 6 would take us with the protocol enhancements we’ve been waiting years for. Fast forward to today, none of it…and I mean NONE of it happened due to COVID-19. While I feel the “pause” button has been pressed on providing Wi-Fi to the masses, what hasn’t stopped is Cisco’s efforts to continue to innovate in this space. What have we been up to? Keep reading….
But first, some background
As I began to think back over the history of our HD Wi-Fi journey since 2008, I quickly realized that wasn’t really a blog, it was more like a novel. I ended up tossing that idea and decided it’s better to get to the point of what we’re working on now a lot quicker! So rather than write a novel on the history I’ll keep it short here so we can get to the point of this blog.
Cisco entered the HD Wi-Fi market in 2008 and realized that Wi-Fi wasn’t created with High Density in mind. Sure, there were definitely stadiums prior to that timeframe that had some level of Wi-Fi access, but the first multi-billion-dollar high tech stadiums began appearing in 2009. The early observations quickly led us to focus initially on the need to combat co-channel interference by creating smaller cells within large public venues (LPV). This led to our first LPV antenna. That antenna introduced our first purpose-built 30×30 degree beamwidth and accomplished the goal of creating smaller coverage cells in the large open areas that are typical of stadiums, convention centers, and concert venues. Over time we’ve added additional antennas to the round out the portfolio, but the focus shifted more towards software features that enabled more granular configuration and performance for the LPV space. Rather than walk through all of the current features and antennas available, you can take a look at a recent Cisco Live presentation from earlier this year in Barcelona. It covers design considerations, antenna options, features and much more and can be accessed here:
What’s keeping us busy during this pandemic?
We’ve come full circle. Recall we started our journey with a focus on antennas, then we moved more towards software features. Well, we’re taking a fresh look at antenna improvements specifically designed for the LPV/High Density environments.
One of the first questions that you might be asking is why are we doing this? With the improvements that Wi-Fi 6 is bringing with features like OFDMA, do we really need a better antenna? We believe the answer is yes. Looking historically at HD Wi-Fi over the past 12 years there has been one constant – the data consumption of client devices is growing exponentially year over year without fail. This is largely due to our app-centric way of living these days as well as overall improvements of handsets and their performance capabilities. So, while we agree that Wi-Fi 6 is bringing much needed enhancements at the protocol level, we also believe that consumption will continue to grow and any additional improvements that we can make on the AP or antenna front are worth the effort!
Design Requirements Phase
When we sat down at the drawing board late last year, we discussed what we wanted to achieve with a new antenna. That discussion concluded with a list of design requirements we would set out to achieve. While that this was long and exhaustive, here is a list of the major requirements:
- The new antenna must have a tighter beamwidth with better side lobe reduction. While our current antennas already do a great job of this, our antenna design team felt there was even more room for improvement in this area. This requirement was largely driven by the idea that we also want to be able to adequately service clients from further distances and we feel one major step in accomplishing that is further reducing the inter-ap interference that is commonplace in these environments.
- The new antenna needs to be software configurable. If you look at the above requirement it would mean that we would be creating an antenna that could only be used in certain scenarios with a limited range of distances. That didn’t make sense to the design team so our new antenna will have a configurable beam width as well as configurable beam steering capabilities. This adds the flexibility we desired and allows the antenna to be deployed in a variety of environments.
- The new antenna needs to be easier to install and have fewer moving parts. This was based on a desire to improve upon our current solution which consists of an AP and optionally two external antennas. Additionally, if you are deploying in an outdoor environment you need to place the AP in NEMA enclosure. That’s a lot to install! The new design includes a tri-radio design but will instead consist of an AP and antenna combined into a single unit and will not require a NEMA enclosure.
- What’s the 4th requirement? It’s actually a couple cool new antenna features but they are still a bit too early to talk about. We’ll publish an update as soon as we are able, but the general idea is that we are focused on keeping the installation, control and management simple and intuitive.
Prototype testing at Rock Lititz
Once the requirements were gathered, we moved into a testing phase which involved creating hand-built prototypes to test specific antenna characteristics and performance we were looking to achieve. In January of this year, we were able to secure time in the “studio” on the Rock Lititz campus in Lititz Pennsylvania ( www.rocklititz.com ). This facility is typically used by touring musical artists as a rehearsal facility before heading out on tour. It mimics the size of a typical 20k seat arena and turned out to be the perfect environment for testing different types of antenna attributes at various heights and angles. We worked with the team at Rock Lititz (true rock stars by the way) and were able to have a 200ft truss hung from the overhead catwalk with motor mounts that allowed us to raise and lower our test equipment to any height we needed at the press of a button!
This testing in Lititz laid the groundwork for what will ultimately become our newest HD Wi-Fi antenna to be paired with the Catalyst 9130 access point. Here are a few more pics of the testing from Lititz. Please note– that the access points and antenna prototypes that are shown here were only used for validation and proof points that we needed to decide to move forward and are not an accurate reflection of the shape/size/dimensions of what it will ultimately look like. For that, wait until the end of this post!
Picture depicting hand-built prototypes mimicking beam steering capability
Drone shot from above the girder looking down towards test clients below
Time-lapse video showing the team working through various throughput tests, co-channel tests, site surveys, and AP/antenna adjustments we made as we went through the test plan
Fast forward to today
As the hardware design is wrapping up, the focus shifts towards software and working on the user interface. The team is also spending time developing some optional accessories aimed at making things easier to deploy. We’re looking forward to the release next year, however we admit that COVID has (and might still) add delays. In the meantime, here are a couple pictures of a prototype of what the AP/Antenna combo might look like:
Recent prototype picture from the front (note- this is not a final product photo) Dimensions = 24″ x 18”
Recent prototype picture from the rear (note- this is not a final product photo)
We’re excited to say the least and will update more as we get closer to the launch date!