Sometimes in order to see the big picture, you have to start with a deep dive.
At a recent two-day workshop on connectivity hosted by modem and radio chipmaker Qualcomm, I was bombarded with technical minutiae on everything from the role of filters in the RF front end of a modern modem, to the key elements of 3GPP Release 13, and the usage of carrier aggregation-like functions in upcoming technologies that leverage unlicensed 5 GHz spectrum.
What really hit me about the discussion, though, was how many different ways are now available to wirelessly connect—and how many more are still to come. In addition to the more common forms of WiFi and LTE, there is a tremendous range of new varieties of both standards, either already in place or being developed. These additions are adapting to and adjusting for the real-world limitations that earlier iterations of these technologies still have, and will help us fill in the gaps of our current coverage. Put simply, it’s Connectivity 2.0 (or 5.0 or whatever number you choose to assign to this technology maturation process).
In these days of 4K video streaming and our seemingly insatiable thirst for wireless broadband connections, that’s important. Connectivity has become the lifeblood for our devices—as essential to them as water is to us—and the need to have faster, more consistent connections is only going to grow.
In addition to the more common forms of WiFi and LTE, there is a tremendous range of new varieties of both standards, either already in place or being developed.
In the case of WiFi, the next standard we have to look forward to is 802.11ad. Think of it as the firehose of WiFi—it can’t deliver water very far, but within that confined area, it delivers the water fast—really fast. The 802.11ad standard uses radio waves at 60 GHz to communicate—much different than the typical 2.4 or 5 GHz used by other versions of WiFi—and by doing so it can deliver speeds as fast as most wired network connections (5 Gbps), but you’re limited to being in the same room as the router/access point that’s sending out those signals.
Though the standards committees are still finalizing details, fierce competitors Intel and Qualcomm just publicly demonstrated compatibility between their two offerings last week, ensuring we’ll see the first 802.11ad-equipped products later this year.
Another forthcoming WiFi improvement that’s a bit further out (think 1-2 years) is 802.11ax (don’t even get me started on these crazy naming conventions…), which you might want to think of as the sprinkler system of WiFi.
We’ve all been to conventions, concerts, sporting events and other large venues that, while they technically offer WiFi, don’t exactly offer a great experience to everyone. Sometimes you connect, sometimes you don’t, but the speed is never great. The goal of 802.11ax is to deliver consistent quality connections and speeds in these congested environments, as well as places like multi-unit housing complexes, shopping malls, etc.
We are also starting to see efforts to extend LTE for applications like these. Key suppliers to the telecommunications industry are making an effort to use what is called unlicensed spectrum—that is, radio bands that are not specifically purchased and used by telco carriers for their own networks—to carry broadband data and, equally important, not interfere with existing WiFi traffic. Qualcomm is working with a variety of other major players including Nokia, Ericsson and Intel, on something they’ve dubbed MulteFire, which they hope will bring LTE-like performance with WiFi-like simplicity, into the mainstream over the next few years. These companies are expected to make more announcements at the upcoming Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona will also be the site of more news on the granddaddy of all connectivity developments—5G. Though real-world implementations probably won’t happen in the US until about 2020, many developments from test beds, to radio technologies, to infrastructure elements to applications are expected to be announced at the show. 5G is being specifically designed to handle extreme variations in waveform frequencies—from the low MHz to millimeter wave 50 GHz plus—as well as enormous ranges in power consumption, all with the hope of covering every application from low-power IOT to enormous, real-time data transfers.
Keeping track of all these new connectivity options certainly won’t be easy, and getting access to them will require buying devices that specifically support the new standards. The range of options we can look forward to is impressive, however, and will help wireless connectivity become an even more ubiquitous and reliable part of our everyday lives.