Happy Birthday Wi-Fi

This year is the twentieth anniversary of the formation of the Wi-Fi Alliance and the launch of commercial Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi has become so ubiquitous in our lives that it’s hard to believe that it’s only been twenty years since all broadband connections came with wires.

In 1999 most people were still using dial-up and that’s the year when early adapters started buying DSL. I remember having incredibly long phone cords so that I could use my laptop at different places around the house. When I bought DSL, I became tied to the desk with the DSL modem because I couldn’t find equally long cords to carry DSL all over the house.

I remember the day I bought my first Linksys Wi-Fi router. At that time, I think the only device in my home that would talk to Wi-Fi was my laptop. I was able to use that laptop everywhere around the house, and I remember how liberating it felt to be able to use the laptop on the front porch. I got my first carrier-class Wi-Fi router when I upgraded to fiber on Verizon FiOS. Even then I think the only devices in my house that communicated with the Wi-Fi router were a desktop and some laptops – the world had not yet started to build Wi-Fi into numerous devices. Today my home is crammed full of Wi-Fi-capable devices and it’s hard to imagine going without the wireless technology.

There’s an article in the current Wired by Jeff Abramowitz discussing how Wi-Fi as we know it almost didn’t happen. At the time that 802.11b was introduced there was a competing technology called HomeRF that was being pushed as a home wireless solution. We easily could have ended up with HomeRF used in the home and 802.11b used in the office. That would have meant no easy transition of devices from office to home, which would likely have stymied the ubiquitous Wi-Fi we have today.

The growth of Wi-Fi required free spectrum to thrive, and for that, we can thank microwave ovens. Microwave ovens were first developed in the 1940s and emitted radiation the 2.45 GHz frequency. In the 1960s practically every home bought a microwave oven, and at that time the devices didn’t have great shielding. Since the microwave ovens polluted the spectrum on both sides of the 2.45 GHz band, the FCC decided in 1985 to add frequency bands on both sides of that spectrum, creating the ISM band that was open for anybody to use. With the radio technology available at the time nobody wanted to put any commercial usage too close to leaky microwave ovens. Since then, microwave ovens have better shielding and radios are more accurate in pinpointing narrow channels, and we can now use most of what the FCC had considered in 1985 to be junk spectrum.

I am amused every time I hear somebody in the industry say that broadband is going wireless – and by that, they mean 5G cellular. Today the average cellphone customer uses about 6 GB of cellular data per month. What the cellphone companies don’t talk about is that the average cellphone user also consumes three times that much data each month on Wi-Fi connection. The fact is that our cellphones are mostly Wi-Fi devices that can change to cellular data when we’re out of reach of our homes, schools, and offices.

Wi-Fi is about to take another big leap forward as WiFi 6 is being officially released this month. This newest version of Wi-Fi uses less energy, reduces latency, increases performance in crowded wireless environments, and allows for faster speeds. Wi-Fi has gotten a lot more sophisticated with the introduction of techniques like beamforming and the technology is light years ahead of what first came out in 1999. In those early days, a Wi-Fi modem was just good enough to handle the 1 Mbps DSL and cable modems broadband of the day.

Device manufacturers love Wi-Fi. Estimates vary, but there are predictions that there will be something like 10 billion worldwide Wi-Fi connected devices in 2020 and 22 billion by 2025 – which would be nearly three Wi-Fi devices for every person on the planet. Those are unbelievable numbers for a technology that only came into existence twenty years ago. The manufacturers must be thrilled knowing that we’ll all be buying new devices to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 over the next few years.

If Wi-Fi was a person, I’d bake them a cake or buy them a drink to honor this birthday. I’ll have to settle for thanking all of those who have contributed over the years to turn the Wi-Fi concept into the robust products that have changed all of our lives.

5G and Home IoT

I’ve been asked a lot recently about the potential future of 5G – everybody in the industry wants to understand the potential threat from 5G. One of the biggest proposed uses for 5G is to connect IoT devices to the cloud. Today I’m going to look at what that might mean.

It’s clear that 5G cellular will be the choice for connecting to outdoor IoT sensors. Sensors for farm equipment in rural areas or for outdoor weather and traffic sensors in urban areas are going to most easily handled by 5G cellular since the technology will eventually be everywhere. 5G is particularly suited for serving IoT devices due to frequency slicing where just the right amount of bandwidth, large or small, can be allocated to each small outdoor sensor. 5G has another interesting feature that will allow it to poll sensors on a pre-set schedule rather than have the sensor constantly trying to constantly connect – which will reduce power consumption at the sensor.

It’s clear that the cellular carriers also have their eye on indoor IoT devices. It’s harder to say that 5G will win this battle because today almost all indoor devices are connected using WiFi.

There are a couple of different 5G applications that might work in the indoor environment. The cellular carriers are going to make a pitch to be the technology of choice to connect small inside devices. In my home I can get a good cellular signal everywhere except in the old underground basement. There is no question that cellular signal from outside the home could be used to connect to many of the smaller bandwidth applications within the home. I can’t see any technical reason that devices like my Amazon Echo or smart appliances couldn’t connect to 5G instead of WiFi.

But 5G cellular has a number of hurdles issues to overcome to break into this market. I’m always going to have a wired broadband connection to my home, and as long as that connection comes from somebody other than one of the big cellular carriers I’m not going to want to use 5G if that means paying for another monthly subscription to a cellular provider. I’d much rather have my inside devices connected to the current broadband connection. I also want all of my devices on the same network for easy management. I want to use one hub to control smart light switches or other devices and want everything on the same wireless network. That means I don’t want some devices on WiFi and others on cellular.

One of the sales pitches for 5G is that it will be able to easily accommodate large numbers of IoT connections. Looking into the future there might come a time when there are a hundred or more smart devices in the house. It’s not that hard to picture the Jetson’s house where window shades change automatically to collect or block sunlight, where music plays automatically when I enter a room, where my coffee is automatically ready for me when I get out of bed in the morning. These things can be done today with a lot of effort, but with enough smart devices in a home these functions will probably eventually become mainstream.

One of the limitations of WiFi today is that it degrades in a busy environment. A WiFi network pauses each time it gets a new request for a connection, which is the primary reason it’s so hard to keep a good connection in a busy hotel or convention center.

However, the next generation with WiFi 6 is already anticipating these needs in the home. WiFi can adopt the same frequency slicing used by 5G so that only a small portion of a channel can be used to connect to a given device. Events can be scheduled on WiFi so that the network only polls certain sensors only periodically. The WiFi network might only interact with the smart coffee pot or the smart window shades when something needs to be done, rather than maintaining a constantly open channel. It’s likely that the next iterations of WiFi will become nearly as good as 5G for these functions within a closed home environment.

There is an even better solution that is also being discussed. There’s no reason that indoor routers can’t be built that use both WiFi and 5G frequencies. While the cellular companies are gobbling up millimeter wave spectrum, as long as there is an unlicensed slice of spectrum set aside for public use it will be possible to deploy both WiFi on mid-range frequencies and 5G on millimeter wave frequencies at the same time. This would blend the benefits of both technologies. It might mean using WiFi to control the smart coffee pot and indoor 5G to connect to the smart TV.

Unfortunately for the cellular carriers, these duel-function routers won’t need them. The same companies that make WiFi routers today can make combination 5G / WiFi routers that work with the full range of unlicensed spectrum – meaning no revenue opportunity for the cellular carriers. When I look at all of the issues I have a hard time seeing 5G cellular becoming a preferred technology within the home.

 

5G vs. WiFi

The big cellular carriers envision a future where every smart device is connected to their cellular networks rather than to WiFi. They envision every home having to pay a monthly subscription to maintain connectivity for their wired devices. They envision every new car and truck coming with a subscription to cellular service.

I notice that the cellular providers talk about generating IoT revenues, but they’re never specific that the real vision is for everybody to buy additional cellular subscriptions. Most IoT applications will be low-bandwidth yet the carriers have been spreading the false message that 5G is all about faster broadband. I just saw another ludicrous article yesterday predicting how 5G was going to bring mobile gigabit broadband to rural America – a pure fantasy that is being fed by the public relations machines at Verizon and AT&T.

We aren’t seeing much press about the most important aspect of the new 5G specifications – that each cell site will be able to make up to 100,000 simultaneous connections. This isn’t being done for cellphones. It’s rare these days except in a few over-crowded places for a cellular call not to be connected. Placing a few small cell sites at the busiest places in most cities could solve most cellular bottlenecks without an upgrade to 5G.

The 100,000 connections give the wireless carriers the tool that can make a connection to every smart TV, smart washer and dryer, home video camera, burglar alarm sensor and every other wired device in a home. The big carriers are launching a direct challenge to WiFi as the wireless technology of choice for connecting our devices.

AT&T and Verizon envision every home having a new $10, $20 or $30 subscription to keep all of the devices connected. They also envision becoming the repository of all IoT data – moving them in front of Google and others in the chase for collecting the big data that drives advertising revenues. This is something they definitely don’t talk about.

It doesn’t take much of a thought exercise to understand that 5G is not about faster cellular service. Cellular subscribers will gladly take faster cellular broadband, but they probably aren’t willing to pay more for it. T-Mobile is already making that clear by announcing that they won’t charge more for 5G. The carriers are not going to spend tens of billions to implement 5G cellular technology that doesn’t drive the new revenues needed to pay for it. 5G is about IoT, plain and simple.

Today all of our home devices use WiFi. While WiFi is far from perfect, it seems to do an adequate job in connecting to the video camera at the front door, the smart TV, and the sensors in various appliances and devices around the home. WiFi has a few major advantages over cellular broadband – it’s already in our homes and connected to our devices and doesn’t require an additional monthly subscription.

I think people will resist another forced subscription. HP recently reported that the vast majority of their customers that buy 4G LTE-enabled laptops disable the cellular connection almost as soon as the new computer is out of the box. In this day of cellphones, very few car owners sign-up for the cellular subscription for OnStar when the free trial expires. I know that I personally would not buy a home device that eventually needed another cellular subscription to function.

The cellular carriers make a valid point in saying that WiFi is already growing inadequate for busy homes. But there are already short-term and long-term fixes on the way. The short-term fix is the upcoming migration to WiFi 6 using the 802.11ax standard. The new WiFi will better use MIMO antennas, frequency slicing and other techniques to allow for prioritization of devices and a more reliable connection to multiple devices.

The ultimate indoor broadband network will be a combination of WiFi and millimeter wave, or even faster spectrum. Higher frequency spectrum could provide bandwidth for the devices that use big bandwidth while keeping other devices on mid-range spectrum WiFi – getting the best from both sets of spectrum. That combination will allow for the easy integration, without interference for the connection of gigabit devices and also of tiny sensors that only communicate sporadically.

This is not the future that AT&T and Verizon want, because this is a world controlled by consumers who buy the wireless boxes that best suit them. I envision a future indoor-only wireless network that won’t require licensed spectrum or a cellular subscription since the millimeter waves and other higher frequencies won’t pass outdoors through walls.

The cellular carriers will have a monopoly on the outdoor sensor market. They will undoubtedly make the connections to smart cars, to smart agriculture, and to outdoor smart city sensors. But I think they will have a huge uphill battle convincing households to pay another monthly subscription for something that can be done better using a few well-placed routers.