Navigating the wireless standards universe

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Introduction

Like many technology areas, the world of wireless communications is full of names, acronyms and numbers. These different types of wireless communication technology are built on wireless ‘standards’, each suited for different uses. Some key wireless standards are grouped under household names such as WiFi, Bluetooth and cellular, ‘mobile’, networks. Whilst most of us enjoy the benefits of these standardised forms of wireless communication everyday it can be a complicated world to navigate when you want to develop a wireless product or system. If you are considering replacing a wired system for a wireless one, your requirements need the best fit, and this guide will help you start to navigate the wireless standards behind your decision.

Understanding Radio Standards

Of the many standards in operation, we will cover the key ones in specific groups: Wireless Personal Area Networks (WPANs – e.g. Bluetooth), Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs – e.g. WiFi), Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs) and Cellular Networks.

Wireless Personal Area Networks (WPANs)

Bluetooth is a well-established and well-known technology that allows a great diversity of devices to connect wirelessly over a short range. Over the last few years there has been a significant evolution in the standards, with ‘old’ Bluetooth becoming Classic Bluetooth, and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Bluetooth 5 appearing.

Classic Bluetooth is very popular within consumer electronics, particularly for music and voice wireless connection, though its capabilities are fare wider. Bluetooth Low Energy is designed to transfer small amounts of data (initially not for streaming, but this has recently been supplemented with LE Audio), with a very efficient battery life. It allows a wireless connection to be established faster and consumes a lot less power (between 10 or 20 times less than Classic Bluetooth), which significantly extends battery life.

Bluetooth Low Energy enables power sensitive devices to efficiently connect to the Internet, particularly via smartphones, which carry Bluetooth as standard. It does so not by a stream of data but instead by occasionally transmitting data about the state of the device, allowing for a more detailed interrogation as required.

So what is Bluetooth Low Energy used for?

Connecting the things we carry with us

Watches can act as a remote display for your smartphone notifying you of received messages. Objects can be located via an attached tag or warn if separated from you. A pedometer in your shoe can track your steps and send the data to your smartphone to track your fitness.

Accessing the things around us

Proximity key fobs can be used for access control and as triggers for home and office automation systems. Interactive displays can offer content when we are close with a tag or smartphone. Wall mounted sensors can track a shopper’s route through a store and send tailored offers live to their smartphone.

Low duty cycle M2M (machine to machine) communication

Biometric sensors collect health data and report it via a smart device. Control home heating remotely via temperature sensors at home (though this is often performed using a home automation protocol such as Zigbee – see below)

Communication within a system

Car wheels sense tire pressure and condition and data is displayed on the driver’s dashboard.

Connecting anything that has intrinsic data

Keep track of the weather using barometric and temperature sensors. Monitor home energy use.

Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs)

Perhaps one of the best known modern wireless standards is WiFi which is a group of standards governed by the WiFi Alliance for Local Area Networking. Its short range, high data rate, wide support and low cost hardware have made it the obvious choice for wireless local area networks to computers and other devices, with increasing opportunities for users to operate at even faster data rates.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is a key sponsor of industry standards, with IEEE 802.11 being the key one that WiFi is based on. It is commonplace to have 300Mbps transmissions over WiFi in the 2.4GHz and 5Ghz bands.
Another standard, IEEE 802.15.4 is also in widespread use. It forms the base for a number of standards, including Zigbee which can form a mesh network to increase range from one or more gateways. IEEE 802.15.4 is also the basis for IPV6LowPAN and Thread, both widely adopted standards for connecting small devices to the Internet, giving us the Internet of Things (IoT).

Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs)

In the last few years, driven by smart meter installations, a number of long-range, but very low data rate protocols have become popular. These protocols are primarily driven by proprietary designs (not standards committees) and then survived by forming industry alliances. Two of these are LoRaWAN and Sigfox. Both have similar size, power, cost and radio range, and both require a network of base stations to forward received data to its end point (typically a database). There is a growing number of networks being built worldwide, competing with 4G and 5G cellular low-power standards such as NB-IoT (narrow-band IoT). All these systems have good long-range capability (up to some tens of km in good conditions) and are often used for communications to difficult places such as building basements.

Wireless Metropolitan Area Networks (WMANs)

The leading set of standards for metropolitan sized wireless networks is WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access). A fourth generation (4G) technology, WiMAX implements IEEE 802.16 and offers a set of wireless broadband standards. It is the modern version of microwave links that have been in operation since the 1950s. It is used in some countries as a replacement for wired broadband connections.
WiMax links can operated up to a 30-mile range (without the need for line-of-sight), and speeds of 70 megabits per second (up to 1Gbit per second with a 2011 update). WiMAX offers high speeds and multiple access arrangements but, currently, hardware is expensive, with few implementations.

Cellular Networks

Through their ubiquitous use around the world, mobile smartphones have already settled on a number of well recognised standards. With the change from analogue to digital services, all cellular mobile devices device in Europe, and many in the rest of the world, moved to the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications, originally called Groupe Spécial Mobile) standard, a set of protocols for the second generation (2G) that became the de facto worldwide standard with an over 90% share.
To expand the data communications element of this, the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) was developed, which offers an efficient way to send and receive data packets along with EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution) which further improved data transmission rates.
The real acceleration in consumer interest in mobile data came with the third generation (3G) devices and networks. A key standard is the Universal Mobile Telecommunication System (UMTS) which was developed by the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) and is based partly upon the GSM standard and partly on some efficient American standards. This has provided users with far more advanced mobile data and Internet access, which in turn has been a key driver of the smartphone and tablet revolution.
This momentum is showing every sign of increasing with the latest 4G wireless networks. The Long Term Evolution (LTE and LTE-Advanced) standard is commonplace for the latest generation of wireless communications, and 5G, with higher data rates still, continues the trend.

Standards and Market

The creation of standards can come from a number of sources. Often governments will seek to standardise important systems (GSM was sponsored by the EU). Equally, standards can be produced by industry collaboration with leading producers (Bluetooth was started by a team at Ericsson) or by leading industry organisations (such the IEEE). Inevitably, standards are driven by market needs and expectations along with the need to ensure systems are compatible with each other.

What Makes a Standard Successful

Wireless standards must ensure the industry can work together to answer relevant market needs. Standards such as IEEE802.11 and Bluetooth have achieved this well. Some, like Zigbee, have been less successful and failed to become widely adopted as the go-to wireless networking standard.
Often a standard will only really become truly successful once it is being adopted by many popular mobile devices, therefore becoming relevant to the wider market. One example is the success of GSM mobile phone standards which opened up the market by allowing competition, driving down costs and then introducing worldwide acceptance. At the time of introduction it united a largely fragmented US mobile market. Mass adoption by one market will often propel it into another market as products begin to use it.

Conclusion

Despite the breadth and complexity of the wireless standards universe, standards can be simply grouped into technologies that communicate depending on how far you want the wireless connection to reach. Within these groupings, some wireless standards have achieved wide adoption, whilst others have struggled to live up to expectations. Sometimes this is due to commercial and political pressures more than their performance of suitability to task. The solutions available to you cater for varying needs and, in some cases, very specific requirements. Additionally, wireless standards are helping to ensure increased levels of compatibility and therefore greater choice and more competitive pricing.

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