5G or .11ax?

By Cees Links, GM of Qorvo Wireless Connectivity Business Unit

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As phones became more computer-like (i.e., smart phones), and computers began supporting all kind of video- and phone-like communication capabilities, it should come as no surprise that the variety of networking technologies that have developed, past and present, are sometimes at odds.

Different Networking Technologies Standards – Developing Very Differently

The standardization body for wireless phone communication today is 3GPP; for wireless computer data communication, it is IEEE 802.11. The roots of 3GPP are with the telephone operators and their governmental sponsors, since operators were originally governmental bodies. (In some countries, they still are.) The IEEE 802.11 is rooted in the computer industry. In addition to academics and regulators, IEEE 802.11 has a large engineer membership, most of whom are sponsored by their employer companies.

The IEEE 802.11 and the 3GPP had another complete and fundamental difference. The government-sponsored 3GPP worked licensed spectrum – spectrum that could be acquired for a certain amount of time to provide communication services. The government, as licensor of the spectrum, is responsible for making sure that the spectrum can only be used by the licensee. Not so with the IEEE 802.11. This standardization body has developed standards in the “unlicensed” bands – bands that have been set aside by the government for “free usage,” based on a set of rules with limited power, so that the interference range for realistic applications stays local. These bands are called ISM (Industrial, Scientific and Medical) bands and can be found in the 2, 5 and 60 GHz bands.

The companies that sponsored their engineers to develop IEEE 802.11 then needed to enforce compliance to the IEEE 802.11 standard definitions. (The IEEE 802.11 itself does not regulate compliance.) So, the Wi-Fi Alliance was founded by these interested companies for enforcing and promoting the IEEE 802.11 standard under the Wi-Fi brand – without exaggeration one of the most valuable brands today. 3GPP, on the other hand, never really focused on a cohesive brand strategy aimed at consumers. This makes sense because 3GPP was the interest group of operators, who always had a certain control of the market. They never had to win the hearts and minds of the consumers, like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth did. So instead of bothering with brand consistency issues, whole sets of ever-improving standards migrated from GSM/GPRS to 3G, Edge, 4G, LTE and now 5G, which will likely involve a new set of implementations.

The Battles and Successes of Wi-Fi – and the Answer to Why Computers Have Two Radios

When Wi-Fi was emerging in the late 1990s, the general tendency in “3GPP-land” was to ask: why do you need Wi-Fi? At that time, the standardization of 3G was progressing well and promising high data rates, and 3Gmodems connected to or integrated in laptops would provide ubiquitous connectivity. So, why bother with Wi-Fi? The general opinion was that this “unlicensed technology” would disappear, probably sooner than later, because in the unlicensed bands, the lack of oversight would bring the performance spiraling down quickly.

Of course, we know today that things turned out rather differently. Wi-Fi has found a way to properly operate in the unlicensed ISM-bands and satisfy the needs for wireless connectivity indoor, in-home or in-building, where 3G was not able to penetrate well. Also, Wi-Fi rapidly increased its data rate and expanded its capabilities by moving from the 2.4 GHz band into the 5 GHz band, and it is expected to further extend these by going into the 6o GHz band. Range extender technologies and, more recently, the concept of distributed Wi-Fi (“Wi-Fi Mesh”), have also supported Wi-Fi’s success to date.

A significant part of the reason that Wi-Fi was successful was the fact that data communications via 3G required a paid subscription from telephone operators and a data plan that initially led to quite hefty bills, not to mention roaming charges. By comparison, Wi-Fi was free – or at least, the incremental cost for Wi-Fi via a fixed telephone, ISDN and later with ADSL, was limited.

So now we had wired operators directly competing with the wireless operators, which ultimately stimulated worldwide acceptance of Wi-Fi. The wireless operators helped this along by initially discouraging the use of 3G for data (and therefore encouraging the use of Wi-Fi) due to concern for a voice service collapse if 3G was “overused” for data. By marketing 3G as having a data element, even though it really was designed for voice, the 3G folks didn’t help themselves in this regard.

By the way, this answers the question of why most computers and tablets have only two radios. 3G-licensed radios (and their successors) were rarely integrated in computers or tablets because Wi-Fi offered a cost-effective and versatile internet connection. An integrated 3G radio was just too expensive by comparison. When a mobile solution is needed, users have turned to devices like 3G dongles or, more commonly today, using their mobile phone as a hotspot.

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