March 2018

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Cees LinksEMAIL INTERVIEWCees Links and Ken Sinclair

General Manager, Wireless Connectivity business unit, Qorvo.

Cees Links is a pioneer of the wireless data industry. He is the founder and CEO of GreenPeak Technologies, a Smart Home and IoT radio communications semi-conductor company, now part of Qorvo.

Earlier in his career, Cees worked for NCR, AT&T, and Lucent Technologies. Under his responsibility, the first wireless LANs were developed for PCs and notebooks, that ultimately became household Wi-Fi technology integrated into computers, smart phones, and connected smart devices. He also pioneered the development of access points, home networking routers, and hotspot base-stations. He was involved in the establishment of the IEEE 802.11 standardization committee and the Wi-Fi Alliance. He was also instrumental in establishing the IEEE 802.15 standardization committee that became the basis for Zigbee sense and control networking.

After Qorvo’s acquisition of GreenPeak in May 2016, Cees has become the General Manager of Wireless Connectivity business unit in Qorvo.

Who is going to win between 5G and Wi-Fi 802.11ax?

I want to remind readers how we got to where we are, explaining fundamental differences, and why we still both have today Wi-Fi, and 5G in development.

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SinclairYou recently bylined a new White Paper, raising the question of who is going to win between 5G and Wi-Fi 802.11ax, why did you examine this topic?

Today, a lot of wireless data-communication technology is still in development, new standards and proprietary technologies are trying to win everybody’s favor. How do we separate the noise from what really matters? Should consumers care about all of this? Why do people know names like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and LTE? What about 5G or Zigbee?

Despite all the marketing efforts, it is always interesting to understand where things are going. Hence why I want to remind readers how we got to where we are, explaining fundamental differences, and why we still both have today Wi-Fi, and 5G in development.

SinclairCan you explain quickly who the technology players involved in the discussion are?

In a relatively short period of time, we have seen three new technologies develop and converge: the phone, the Radio/TV, and the computer. However, nowadays, the differences between phones, TVs, laptops, and tablets are slowly disappearing. In a way, they are all becoming “networked computers,” but each still has its own history of wireless communication standards as each experienced its own transition from wired to wireless technology.

The standardization body for wireless phone communication today is 3GPP; for wireless computer data communication, it is IEEE 802.11. The origin of 3GPP is with the telephone operators and their governmental sponsors; whereas the IEEE 802.11 is from 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 Wi-Fi Alliance was founded to enforce and promote the IEEE 802.11 standard under the Wi-Fi brand. 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, as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth did.

SinclairHow did Wi-Fi make a difference in this story?

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 cost was limited.

So now we had wired operators directly competing with 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.

SinclairWhat about Bluetooth and Zigbee in all of that?

To create a standard for the type of phone connectivity, the Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group) was formed, with companies as members (as opposed to the engineer members of IEEE 802.11). Fairly soon, the Bluetooth SIG echoed 3GPP in declaring Wi-Fi redundant and telling the market Wi-Fi would soon disappear.

But after a few years, it became clear that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth had separate, defined application domains – Wi-Fi for “networking” and Bluetooth for “peripheral connectivity.” Since then, many devices have emerged with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth – Wi-Fi for high-speed networking and Bluetooth for connecting devices. For a while, there was an effort to make Bluetooth part of IEEE, but their organizational and membership differences drove them apart.

Zigbee, the low-power variant of Wi-Fi (based on IEEE 802.15.4) is under threat from BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy), the low-power variant of Bluetooth. The Bluetooth SIG is developing a networking variant (Bluetooth Mesh) that is supposed to compete with Zigbee. Looking at the early proposals, however, it seems that considerable complexity would need to be added to BLE to achieve what is already available with Zigbee. We will have to wait and see how this plays out.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]SinclairIf we come back to your initial question, who do you think is going to win the battle?

There are three things that matter in a radio: range, data rate, and power consumption.

Both Wi-Fi and 5G will be in the high data rates (Gb/s), both will be quite power intensive to get good range, and both are trying to infringe on each other’s territory. 5G is claiming that it will have “way better indoor penetration,” and .11ax is throwing out the slogan, “5G has arrived, and it is called .11ax.”

IEEE 802.11ax has a clear path worked out, although, with the increased data rate, the range is definitely reducing. Interestingly Wi-Fi has turned this disadvantage into an advantage by focusing this new IEEE 802.11ax standard on distributed Wi-Fi (Wi-Fi Mesh) and enabling the usage of multiple channels at the same time to connect multiple access points in different rooms to the main router. The focus of IEEE 802.11ax is on full indoor coverage – every part of your house or office building covered with the same high data rate, creating an experience that will not be easily replaceable with 5G.

However, 5G is facing its own quite serious challenges, including delays. 5G’s higher data rates create a penalty on its range, too, and for cellular base stations, coverage goes “by the square.” The expectation is that the range for 5G will probably decrease by less than half, forcing the number of base stations to more than quadruple. In dense urban areas, where finding real estate to place base stations is expensive, this will mean that rolling out 5G infrastructure will be at significant expense, at the same time, that many operators are still recovering from their 4G investments.

Honestly, there shouldn’t even be a battle. Both 5G and Wi-Fi have very particular characteristics that will be beneficial for connecting “computers” to the internet. So, the operator that best can exploit both technologies to its advantage and can define and execute a strategy that leverages them both will become the winner. Seen from this perspective, the ultimate winner of these technology battles will be the end-user.

Link to the whitepaper


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