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EMAIL INTERVIEW – Cees Links and Ken Sinclair
General Manager, Wireless Connectivity business unit, Qorvo.
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.
Qorvo’s acquisition of GreenPeak in May 2016, Cees has become the
General Manager of Wireless Connectivity business unit in Qorvo.
Sinclair: You 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.
Sinclair: Can 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.
Sinclair: How 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.
Sinclair: What 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
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.
Sinclair: If 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
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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