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 Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular, ‘mobile’, networks. While most of us enjoy the benefits of these standardised forms of wireless communication every day, 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 with a wireless one, your requirements need the best fit, and this article will help you start to navigate the wireless standards behind your decision.
Understanding Radio Standards
Of the many standards in operation, we will cover just the key ones in specific groups: Wireless Personal Area Networks (WPANs – e.g., Bluetooth), Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs – e.g., Wi-Fi), 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) becoming the dominant standard for sensors and audio connection.
Classic Bluetooth has been enormously successful within consumer electronics, particularly for music and voice wireless connection, though its capabilities are far wider. BLE is designed to transfer small amounts of data (initially not for streaming, but has recently been transformed with Bluetooth LE Audio), with 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.
BLE 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.
Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs)
Perhaps one of the best-known modern wireless standards is Wi-Fi, which is a group of standards governed by the Wi-Fi 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.
Another standard, IEEE 802.15.4 is also in widespread use. It forms the base for several 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, several 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 endpoint (typically a database). There is a growing number of networks being built worldwide, including an interesting crypto-currency-driven wireless network, Helium, competing with 4G and 5G cellular low-power standards, such as narrow-band IoT (NB-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.
Through their ubiquitous use around the world, mobile smartphones have already settled on several well-recognised standards. With the change from analogue to digital services, all cellular mobile devices in Europe, and many in the rest of the world, moved to the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), originally called Groupe Spécial Mobile standard. This is a set of protocols for the second generation (2G) that became the de facto worldwide standard with an over 90% share.
The real acceleration in consumer interest in mobile data came with the third generation (3G) devices and networks, followed by 4th and 5th generation. This has provided users with far more advanced mobile data and Internet access with high speeds and low latency. This, in turn, has been a key driver of the smartphone and tablet revolution.
Standards and The 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 as 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 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.
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. Wireless standards help to ensure increased levels of compatibility and therefore greater choice and more competitive pricing.