The polarising problem with “iEverything” wireless devices

“iEverything” (wireless only) devices that don’t have an Ethernet connection will soon outnumber those that do. Unlike laptops, these devices enable truly mobile network computing.

This is a profound and fundamental shift that changes everything for computer networks – placing a BIG spotlight on the imperative to improve Wi-Fi communications.

We’ll say this a couple times: with wireless, good speed is ALL about good signal. While bigger, stronger antennas have a significant impact on better Wi-Fi performance, other things related to antennas matter too. Arguably just as important to bigness is antenna orientation and the polarity of RF signals.

An antenna provides three things to a radio: gain, direction and polarity. Gain is the amount of increase in energy that an antenna adds to the RF signal. Direction refers to the shape of the transmission, which describes the coverage area. Polarity is the orientation of the electric field (transmission) from the antenna.

Understanding Polarity

Wave your hand up and down like you do when you put your hand out of the car window. That up and down movement of waves is called vertical polarity (VPOL). The opposite of vertical polarity is horizontal polarity (HPOL) which is like a snake slithering in the desert; waves that move from side to side. For an antenna to transmit waves vertically the antenna will be vertical and if an antenna is horizontal, the polarity is also horizontal.

Here’s the scary part. Horizontal and vertical signals are so different that they aren’t compatible. If you have a perfectly vertical signal hit a perfectly horizontal antenna, that horizontal antenna doesn’t hear anything. Many times, in indoor environments, signals bounce off walls and things (called multipath by geeks) This can change the polarity of signals.

That said, in a linearly polarized system, a misalignment of polarization of 45 degrees can degrade the signal up to 3dB and if misaligned and 90 degrees the attenuation can be more than 20dB. That just sucks. Don’t believe me? Read some “real world” comments from Joe McBreen, who runs IT for a huge school district, St. Vrain Valley School District, in Colorado.

Which Way is Up?

Until fairly recently most wireless devices didn’t move much. Laptops typically sit in one spot with the screen up (the antennas are usually behind the screen). And, until recently, the orientation of cellular phones has also been straight up and down because there were only used for talking, not computing per se.

Today, things couldn’t be more different. Devices such as iPhones and iPads are so versatile they are moved around in almost every imaginable position. In the Wi-Fi world this is like someone on your roof moving your old free-to-air VHS antenna around with your picture fading in and out. Basically, every time you change the orientation of the device you are also changing the orientation (read: polarity) of the antenna of that device – and most of today’s Wi-Fi APs can’t do anything to deal with this.

The Big Rub

Nearly every Wi-Fi access point sold today utilizes omni-directional, “dipole” antennas that are vertically polarized. These have been accepted and considered “normal” for quite some time and for good reason. Prior to the mobile Internet boom, most devices were also vertically polarized and everything worked fine. But here’s the rub. Any time your client device isn’t in the perfect orientation, the signal from the omni-directional AP is diminished which results in range, throughput and reliability all suffering.

Adapt or Die

Contrary to an omni-directional antenna, adaptive antenna arrays are designed with both horizontal and vertical antennas. This is much more difficult to do than it may seem. Some of you have already thought, “Well, I’ll just change the orientation of a few omni antennas and fix that polarity problem!” Unfortunately, that won’t work. It gets pretty complicated but what you would be doing is changing the coverage pattern of those antenna(s) but not others. This would seriously mess up your throughput and range of an 802.11n system.

Just Listen!

Since APs can’t control the orientation of the client antenna, it’s important to listen on all polarities. This is done with Polarization Diversity Maximal Ratio Combining (PD-MRC). MRC is an 802.11n standard way of being able to combine multiple multipath transmissions into one good signal. PD-MRC is a way to do the same thing, except with the ability to combine multiple signals of varying polarities. This allows an AP to accurately listen better to a client device, no matter how it is oriented.

To really improve Wi-Fi performance you need to actually improve how Wi-Fi signals are transmitted and received. This will have (by far) the single biggest impact on Wi-Fi performance. At the end of the day, no matter what Wi-Fi equipment suppliers tell you, the more signal you can deliver to your clients, the faster they will be able to send and receive information.

Ironically, the vast majority of Wi-Fi vendors focus on how to improve Wi-Fi AFTER clients are connected and doing nothing to really make Wi-Fi better. So are they really Wi-Fi vendors? Hmmmmm.

David Callisch is vice president of marketing at Ruckus Wireless. With over 15 years of experience in marketing and marketing communications, David has focused his efforts on the networking hardware industry, and is a veritable fountain of information on this subject. He has extensive experience helping networking startups identify market opportunities, establish defensible differentiation, and create a unique brand. Oh, and he brings bucketloads of energy to every project. Before Ruckus, he was the director of communications at Aruba Networks, helping to launch the company and build the wireless LAN switching market segment. Previously, he served as director of communications at Allegro Networks, a supplier of carrier routing equipment, and held marketing positions at Alteon WebSystems, StrataCom, SynOptics/Bay Networks, and BT North America. His largish nostrils are his defining characteristic.