At the core of smart building design is the technology to gain actionable data from user devices, sensors, and systems, many of which are connected via Wi-Fi. Underlying all technologies are standards, which provide a framework for design, implementation, and use. You’ve likely interacted with technology based on countless standards, such as IEEE 802.11, more commonly known as Wi-Fi. A groundbreaking amendment to the standard for Wi-Fi, known as IEEE 802.11az Next Generation Positioning, launched in March 2023 and provides more refined and accurate location capabilities and improved security, among other benefits.
IEEE 802.11 is an open standard development working group, within part of a larger organization known as the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA). This type of standard is made available to the general public to develop, approve, and maintain it through a consensus process. The standard’s authors are committee members who make individual submissions that are collectively voted on and, if successful, adopted into the standard. An editor then compiles adopted text contributions into a single document. Meanwhile, a chair manages and facilitates discussion in a neutral and fair way.
The new IEEE 802.11az standard can help make buildings smarter, but it will also improve the experience of tenants and visitors. Device manufacturers are already designing new solutions and use cases around the technology.
Wi-Fi standard recap
To better appreciate what’s coming, let’s review some challenges of the current technology. When you are outdoors, a Wi-Fi-enabled device, such as your mobile phone or vehicle navigation system, uses GPS because it can easily receive signals from orbiting GPS satellites. But indoors, obstacles such as roofs and walls effectively block GPS, so the device must use Wi-Fi. The first generation of Wi-Fi location accuracy was based on RSSI (received signal strength indicator) and provided a limited accuracy of 10 to 15 meters; it was also limited by signal path loss.
The second generation of Wi-Fi location, 802.11REVmc, has an accuracy of 1 to 2 meters in harsh environments. It is based on time-of-flight (ToF) measurement, which remains the industry benchmark today.
The latest, third generation of Wi-Fi location accuracy uses the IEEE 802.11az standard and is sub-1 meter accurate. In addition, the new Wi-Fi standard has state-of-the-art security that protects against hacking and eavesdropping. Specifically, the third generation of Wi-Fi location introduces a more scalable protocol, capable of supporting hundreds of devices using less than 10% of the medium, and security in the form of encryption and authenticity for messages and specialized pseudo-random waveforms for range measurement.
The main market-penetration barrier for the second and third generations of Wi-Fi location was their limited network deployment. However, this barrier has largely been removed because of recent rollouts from major infrastructure vendors and the deployment of 6 GHz Wi-Fi infrastructure that supports the second and third generations of Wi-Fi location.
Smart outcomes from the new standard
IEEE 802.11az will significantly improve how we design buildings and foster new user experiences. We can expect to see several use cases.
The new IEEE 802.11az standard enables improved connectivity in extremely dense environments, such as shopping malls, arenas, concert halls, and stadiums, where large numbers of users are actively and simultaneously navigating and continuously consuming Wi-Fi data. Users will be able to connect and navigate in indoor environments where walls, columns, and other obstacles exist. This opens the door to creating apps for improved user experiences.
Accuracy in indoor navigation
Currently, a mapping app to a shopping center will get you to the front door, but once you walk inside and your mobile device switches to Wi-Fi, your location accuracy will traditionally diminish. With IEEE 802.11az, we expect an app to get you within inches of your destination. For example, a retailer’s app will be able to take consumers to the exact location of the item they want to purchase (more on that below). A concertgoer will be able to use an app to find a seat, restroom, or first-aid station.
Micro-targeting for asset tracking
Accurately tracking assets indoors has always been challenging. Client mobile devices are typically handheld and not suitable to tag inventory directly. RFID tags can be used on some items, but they are expensive. With IEEE 802.11az, a “Wi-Fi location client” can be incorporated into a bar code scanner. For every inventory item placed on a shelf and scanned, the scanner can record its position through its SKU. Thus, each item can be located precisely and inexpensively in a warehouse or retail environment, using the existing barcode system—thus reducing the potential for misplacement.
For multiple items with the same barcode, the tracking system can present a list of locations. In a medical setting, the system could find monitoring equipment, which often moves from patient to patient. Users could scan the equipment to track its movements, or each piece could have a unique locater and report to a location service through Wi-Fi. Furthermore, data from consumer apps—such as an individual’s movements from one location to another—can derive analytics and serve relevant information or ads to the user. The result is more efficient inventory management and better synchronization between the physical and electronic database.
Secure, authenticated, and private positioning
When using public Wi-Fi, we often fear a nearby hacker accessing our laptop or mobile device. With IEEE 802.11az’s location accuracy in inches, you could set your computer to unlock via your smart watch, but only with proper authentication and a proximity of inches. Similarly, an interior door may be programmed to unlock only if a smart device is less than a meter away. Instead of hotel scan cards and ATM cards, we could use Wi-Fi enabled devices.
Requiring a close proximity between two devices greatly improves the guarantee of authenticity, thwarting attacks from hackers. We expect to see applications for office, factory, residential, and vehicle security systems that are fine tuned to activate only within inches of a sensor.
Mobile devices utilizing IEEE 802.11az networks will also use less energy. The explanation is highly technical, but the benefit is easy to understand.
Actions in place
The new 802.11az standard is available now, and technology manufacturers are getting acclimated to its benefits.
Most Wi-Fi-6 hardware will ultimately support 802.11az, and the enterprise Access Point market has already been largely upgraded from Wi-Fi 5 to 6 hardware. The smartphone market will follow within the next two years. The required updates for Wi-Fi firmware to support 802.11az on top of Wi-Fi 6 hardware can be sent over the network as software updates and made available to the public.
During this transition, the third generation of Wi-Fi location, 802.11az, is backwards compatible with the second generation 802.11REVmc standard. As a result, a mix of second- and third-generation Wi-Fi location devices will be able to communicate and provide services in the second-generation mode. This is important for consistent user experience.
Wi-Fi capabilities have come a long way, but this new standard is inspiring device manufacturers to create solutions that will in turn inspire how we think about facility design.
IEEE SA support
Through our IEEE 802 LAN/MAN Standards Committee, IEEE SA develops and maintains networking standards and recommended practices for local, metropolitan, and other area networks. As Wi-Fi networks continue to advance on multiple fronts, IEEE Standards will likewise evolve to bring the full potential of Wi-Fi technology to future industry and human needs.
Jonathan Segev is chair of the IEEE 802.11az standard, and Roy Want is the standards editor, IEEE 802.11az. The authors welcome the involvement of participants from academia, government, and industry to IEEE. For more information or to join the standards activity, visit the IEEE 802 LAN/MAN Standards Committee webpage.