Researchers Boost Wi-Fi Range for IoT Devices Via Software-Only ONPC Protocol Upgrade

By reducing throughput as low as a single bit per second, Wi-Fi network range can be extended by over 200 feet.

Researchers from Brigham Young University (BYU), Washington University, and the University of Utah have discovered a software-only upgrade that could expand the range of current Wi-Fi networks by over 60 meters (200 feet) — but is only really usable by selected Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Wi-Fi networks are ubiquitous for a reason: they offer high-speed connectivity for everything from smartphones to sensors, but at a lower range than might otherwise be useful. A team of researchers led by BYU's Phil Lundrigan, however, claims to have worked out a way to significantly boost the range of current Wi-Fi networks without requiring any addition hardware: On-Off Noise Power Communications, or ONPC.

"That’s the really cool thing about this technology: it’s all done in software," explains Phil Lundrigan, assistant professor of computer engineering at BYU. "In theory, we could install this on almost any Wi-Fi-enabled device with a simple software update."

There's a catch, of course. Where current Wi-Fi standards allow for around 1Mb/s of data throughput before dropping out, ONPC extends the range by reducing the expected data throughput — as low as a single bit per second. While not much use for web browsing or other traffic-heavy devices, Lundrigan and his team believe that even such a restricted throughput is ideal for Internet of Things applications.

The system works by turning the signal on and off in a particular pattern, while the router — modified only in software, not hardware — monitors the changes in signal. Even to the point where the actual Wi-Fi signal is little more than noise, the system can ascertain useful data. "If the access point (router) hears this code, it says, 'OK, I know the sensor is still alive and trying to reach me, it’s just out of range," explains co-author Neal Patawari, of Washington University. “It’s basically sending one bit of information that says it’s alive."

That single bit is enough to get useful information from a range of sensors, Lundrigan's team argues, and is detectable long after a traditional Wi-Fi network would have given up the ghost — up to 67 metres more (around 220 feet), according to the company's experiment. The same technique could also be extended to other wireless communication standards, including Bluetooth and LoRa.

The team presented its work at the International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking in Mexico this week, but has not yet offered a timescale for commercialisation of the ONPC protocol or its supporting "Stayin' Alive" application. More information is available from BYU's press office.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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