Creating safer workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic
- By Shahar Feldman
- Oct 01, 2021
The Internet of Things (IoT) is turning dumb houses
into smart homes. It is also revolutionizing access
control systems for all types of commercial buildings,
from small offices and retail shops to enterprise
campuses and sprawling factories. Although digital
locks, keyless entry, RFID card readers and security cameras have
been around for many years, IoT technology has transformed
building automation, bringing a new level of data-driven security,
control, reliability and safety to the workplace.
The convergence of ultra-low-power IoT devices, cloud
connectivity and advanced security technologies has enabled
developers to create highly sophisticated, versatile and resilient
access control systems. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has also
added a new and unprecedented dimension of complexity to the
workplace as evolving health screening regulations require even
greater scalability, security and upgradability for access control
To ensure the security of a building, its occupants and its
contents, network and security system architects must consider
all points of entry, anticipated threats and the ever-changing
credentials of those seeking access to a building or campus.
A comprehensive access control system can include a multitude
of devices such as smart locks, security sensors, keypads, card
readers, surveillance cameras, gates, health screening kiosks, and
a wide array of sensors to help monitor maximum occupancy,
elevated body temperature and facial mask compliance. Integrated
through a robust network, these devices provide real-time status
and control of the entire system.
Whether the scale of an access control system is a set of
smart home door locks, health screening stations at building
entrances or hundreds of secured doors in a large hotel or office,
the costs and complexity of maintaining and upgrading the
control network continue to increase. Whether running on an
on-site computer or hosted by a cloud-based remote monitoring
center, an access control system will benefit from using low-power
wireless connectivity and IP, to unite all of the access components
into an IP-based network that can extend across long distances
inside and outside of a building.
Current best practices make it possible to implement robust
wireless networks that deliver the flexibility and scalability to
aggregate a multitude of devices under a single standard: Wi-Fi
WHAT IS WI-FI HALOW AND WHY IT IS
A GAME CHANGER FOR ACCESS CONTROL
Wi-Fi HaLow is a low-power, long-range version of the popular
Wi-Fi standard that provides 10 times the range, 100 times the
coverage area and 1000 times the volume of traditional Wi-Fi
technology. These attributes make it an ideal wireless backbone
for today’s access control systems, especially those serving large
enterprises with multiple entry points, locks, cameras and many
other security devices.
The IEEE 802.11ah protocol was developed to meet the lowpower,
long-range connectivity requirements of IoT devices. The
standard was ratified in 2016, and dubbed “Wi-Fi HaLow” by
the Wi-Fi Alliance. The commercial rollout of Wi-Fi HaLow
technology is well underway, with transceivers, SoCs and modules
available now to system developers, and a certification program is
expected in 2021.
Wi-Fi, in all of its manifestations, is the most pervasive
short-range wireless protocol used today in homes, offices and
public spaces. As Wi-Fi technology continues to evolve, the rapid
growth of the IoT has sparked a rethinking of Wi-Fi, exposing
technological gaps and revealing new ways the protocol can
progress to meet the needs of our increasingly connected world.
Wi-Fi HaLow fills these gaps by providing an ultra-low-power
wireless solution that connects larger numbers of IoT devices at
much longer distances than conventional Wi-Fi, and at a higher
data rate and security level than alternatives like Bluetooth, Zigbee
or Z-Wave. Wi-Fi HaLow supports both indoor and outdoor
applications, such as battery-powered wireless doorbells, security
cameras, drones and surveillance systems. The lower the frequency,
the better the penetration, and as a sub-1 GHz protocol, its RF
signals can pass through walls and other barriers more easily than
competing 2.4 GHz options, let alone even shorter range 5 GHz
and 6 GHz radios. A single Wi-Fi HaLow access point (AP) can
also reach thousands of connected devices, bypassing complex,
bandwidth-constrained mesh networks, thereby simplifying
installation and minimizing total cost of ownership.
The Wi-Fi HaLow standard’s unique combination of native
IP support, high data rates, low latency, exceptional energy
efficiency, long-range connectivity and security features makes
it an ideal protocol choice for integrated access control systems.
In addition to supporting smart locks, security cameras, card
readers, gates and myriad wireless sensors, these systems also must
support emerging security and health screening devices deployed in
response to the COVID-19. For example, the seemingly simple act
of entering the front door of an office involves multiple decisions:
confirming a person’s identity, validating the security profile, and
assessing the current environment in which a person seeks access.
Adding to the complexity of existing secure access protocols,
new COVID-19 screening procedures require low-latency, sessionoriented
connections of multiple inputs and outputs supported
by an integrated system controlling hundreds or even thousands
of connected devices. Wi-Fi HaLow is an ideal wireless protocol
for these increasingly complex and diverse access control tasks.
THE HALOW EFFECT: SIMPLIFYING AND
SCALING ENTERPRISE ACCESS CONTROL SYSTEMS
Security and access control devices in large-scale commercial
buildings and campuses typically include electronic strikes,
magnetic plates, hybrid smart locks, external keypads, RFID
card scanners, and egress triggers on the inside of entries such
as passive infrared (PIR) motion detectors and request-to-exit
(REX) buttons. With new COVID-19-related health policies and
procedures in place, many commercial buildings and offices have
added health-screening kiosks, thermal cameras to monitor body
temperature, and video cameras to help ensure health compliance
such as wearing a facemask.
In a typical access network, a PC-based security system connects to a control station, which in turn connects to low-voltage power
transformers that energize locks or change their states. Many of
these connections traditionally use wireline technologies, such
as PoE, which provides control signals and power to a gateway
controller located up to a maximum of 100 meters away. Some
access control systems use a hybrid distribution network of PoE
and RS-485 cables to reach proprietary access points connecting
to wireless smart locks on the doors of nearby rooms.
Network and security system providers serving commercial
buildings are increasingly turning to wireless technology as an
alternative to wireline when it comes to scaling the access control
system and adding new devices or rerouting existing network
connections. Wireless connectivity makes it easier to expand or
upgrade these systems without the expense and hassle of running
new cables to often hard-to-reach places.
Wireless protocol options include those operating at 2.4 GHz or
sub-GHz frequencies and those that support point-to-point, star and
mesh network configurations at various power levels, data rates and
ranges. The challenge for developers is to find a wireless “sweet spot”
that minimizes system cost and complexity without compromising
coverage, performance, latency, security or energy efficiency.
Wi-Fi HaLow can help simplify enterprise access control
systems by reducing the costs of security network infrastructure,
as well as the time and expense of cable installation. The protocol’s
energy efficiency helps reduce maintenance costs by minimizing
the frequency of battery changes for IoT devices, and its fast data
rates and low latency also streamline over-the-air (OTA) firmware
updates. Imagine a scenario without HaLow where hundreds of
hotel room door locks require a security firmware patch to be
loaded by going door by door.
In addition, Wi-Fi HaLow uses a simplified star network
capable of connecting large numbers of wireless sensors,
health compliance systems and door locks without the need for
intermediary proprietary controllers or sub-gateways to connect
to the Internet. The access control network can be as simple as a
Wi-Fi HaLow AP connected to a single PoE cable on each floor
of a building, enabling each lock to operate as a locally controlled
or cloud-based device.
Wi-Fi HaLow can also serve as a backhaul network to
replace the tangle of low-speed cables running between the
backbone network and clusters of connected devices. When an
IT administrator needs to add new devices to a wireline network,
installing or rerouting PoE and RS-485 cables can drive up labor
and materials cost. Whether adding video, thermal imaging or
other multi-factor authentication capabilities to a wireless smart
lock, Wi-Fi HaLow is fully capable of handling the task with
greater ease and at lower cost than upgrading wireline networks.
With its long-distance sub-GHz signal reach (up to 1 km),
the benefits of Wi-Fi HaLow can also extend well beyond the
interior of a building to control peripheral access points outside
at the edge of the property. The protocol can connect multiple
sensing devices, such as motion detectors and proximity sensors
that provide early warning of approaching threats, as well as
thermal imaging and facial recognition systems that help ensure
the health of a building’s occupants. Other long-range wireless
networks such as LoRa and Sigfox can only support very low
data rates for small packets of data.
Wi-Fi HaLow solves coverage and range issues with a single,
simplified standard. For example, one Wi-Fi HaLow AP can
support up to 8,191 devices, more than the number of rooms in
the world’s largest hotels. The sub-1 GHz RF signals can penetrate
walls, doors, windows, ceilings, floors and other obstacles. Wi-Fi
HaLow signals can extend farther than existing versions of Wi-
Fi and other short-range wireless standards, with ranges that
can reach devices that would normally require costly wireline
connections. Because it is part of the IEEE 802.11 standard, a Wi-
Fi HaLow network can also coexist with Wi-Fi 4, Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-
Fi 6 networks without impacting RF performance. Wi-Fi HaLow is
also an inherently secure wireless protocol. Its native support for IP
and the Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3) standard enhances the
security of OTA firmware updates and cloud-based connectivity.
CONNECTING THE FUTURE
OF SECURE ACCESS CONTROL NETWORKS
With the rapid rise of the IoT, access control systems for
commercial buildings and offices are evolving to meet market
demands for better security, energy efficiency, lower operating
costs, and tenant convenience, health and safety.
The persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic has not only upended
our lives, but it has also impelled IT and HR professionals to rethink
access control best practices and add new health monitoring and
screening technologies to the workplace. Even when the pandemic
finally abates, it’s likely that enterprise access control systems will
continue to use some of the new monitoring systems in place to
ensure the safety of building occupants and their guests.
The advent of Wi-Fi HaLow will help network architects
and access control developers solve a number of building
automation challenges. Wi-Fi HaLow overcomes the distance
limitations, network congestion and higher power consumption
of conventional Wi-Fi and other 2.4 GHz protocols, as well as
the limited number of wireless devices that can be connected to a
single access point.
These limitations impede new IoT-centric business models that
are emerging across industries to enable a truly connected world. By
addressing these challenges, Wi-Fi HaLow is gaining momentum
in the market as a standards-based wireless
solution that delivers the right balance of long
range, high capacity, low power, high data rates
and low cost of deployment.
This article originally appeared in the September / October 2021 issue of Security Today.