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Researchers Find Way to Extend Wi-Fi Range Without New Hardware

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Researchers from Brigham Young University, Washington University and University of Utah revealed new software yesterday that can reportedly extend the Wi-Fi range of smart home devices without requiring any changes to the underlying hardware.

The researchers named their software the On-Off Noise Power Communication (ONPC) protocol. It's built on top of existing Wi-Fi protocols, and its marquee feature is the ability to function with data speeds of just 1 bit per second (bps).  Wi-Fi requires at least 1 Mbps to maintain a signal; the researchers said ONPC can get away with one-millionth the amount of that speed because smart devices don't require a lot of data.

BYU explained in the announcement that "1 bit of information is sufficient for many Wi-Fi enabled devices that simply need an on/off message, such as a garage door sensor, an air quality monitor or even a sprinkler system." The researchers were able to prove this by using ONPC with an app they dubbed Stayin' Alive to extend the range of smart devices by up to 67 meters (roughly 220 feet) in their experiments.

Here's how it worked:

"[The researchers] adjusted the transmitter in a Wi-Fi-enabled device to send wireless noise in addition to data. They programmed into the Wi-Fi sensor a series of 1s and 0s, essentially turning the signal on and off in a specific pattern. The Wi-Fi router was able to distinguish this pattern from the surrounding wireless noise (from computers, televisions and cell phones) and therefore know that the sensor was still transmitting something, even if the data wasn’t being received."

So does that mean ONPC is about to improve Wi-Fi for most uses? No. The Wi-Fi protocol requires data transfer speeds of at least 1 Mbps for a reason. Nobody's going to want to stream videos, play games or even visit websites if they can only receive a single bit per second. Nor will the protocol make it any easier to maintain a wireless connection in large homes or other buildings that Wi-Fi networks can't totally cover.

ONPC's value comes from its use with Internet of Things (IoT) devices. As the researchers explained, many of these devices simply require a binary on/off command to function. Their protocol is there to make sure those devices can work on the edges of a Wi-Fi network's range or when the network is technically down. It's a fallback--hence the Stayin' Alive companion app--meant to make smart devices more reliable.