No strings attached – the future of wireless standards

Wireless communication technologies have seen significant development over the last decade. This is true both for mobile, where 3G technologies W-CDMA and cdma2000 have altered the way we are able to use our cell phones, and stationary systems, where Wi-Fi, WiMAX and Bluetooth have enabled device communication over the air instead of cables. Standardization has had an instrumental role in this developments (for a more extensive discussion see wirelessstandards2009-08-19final).

The wireless communications scene can be divided into four main areas; Wireless Personal Area networks (WPAN); Wireless Local Area networks (WLAN); Wireless Metro Area networks (WMAN); and Wireless Wide Area networks (WWAN). As the names hint at, the technologies in each of the four areas are intended for different applications dependent of the proximity of the devices to be connected. WPAN typically is suited for wireless communications of up to 10 meters, WLAN up to 100 meters, WMAN can cover about 10 kilometers and WWAN surpasses that of WMAN by a significant margin.

Several factors contribute to increasing substitutability between alternatives both from a user and vendor perspective.  This intensifies competition both between technologies, standards and standard setting organizations.

Historically, devices have  been designed to use one wireless communication technology. This is now changing. New mobile device, for example the Apple iPhone, can use WPAN, WLAN or WWAN for its operations and selects according to which offers the best connection.

Correspondingly, with a wider deployment of fast local and metro area networks the previous  position of mobile networks is now being threatened. As a reaction the telecom industry is developing new standards for long range communications, e.g. Long Term Evolution (LTE), which will rival the speed of WLAN and WMAN and give mobile broadband a new meaning. This development is still some years into the future and we have yet to see how well it plays out.

With the convergence of wireless technologies, making several different connections available to users, it is well worth taking a closer look at the organizations standing behind the different standards of wireless communications.

The landscape for Wireless Communications’ standardization

One dominant feature of standardization in wireless technologies is the separation of specification development and standard promotion and certification into different organizations.

While IEEE standards are the basis for essentially all short range communications networks, most if not all wireless communication standards have their own interest groups which take on responsibility for marketing the specifications and provisioning of testing, validation and certification of implementations. These organizations are not affiliates of IEEE, but IEEE does not discourage the formation of such groups since it gives them a greater presence and a larger uptake of produced standards.

The landscape for standardization of wireless communication is thus a hybrid of cooperation and rivalry between technologies and standards. This combination of coordination and competition has resulted in some fragmentation, sometimes frustrating to end users, but mostly contributed to valuable differentiation and a fast pace of innovation.

In the telecom sector, intense rivalry has dominated the landscape for over a decade as the organizations GSMA and CDG have been the marketing alternative platforms based on standards developed under the GSM and CDMA  respectively. This situation may now change  as the next standard for the telecommunications industry will be a joint development project between the two branches rather than a continuation of the two separate lines. While potentially carrying some static benefits, e.g. increased interoperability, it remains to be seen if the rapid rate of innovation can be maintained without head-to-head competition.

Wireless standards can be categorized in two dimensions: application and procedure. In the application-dimension standards can be broadly group in five categories; short range wireless communications (PAN and LAN), long range telecommunications (2G and 3G mobile communication) and mobile broadband, which combines the concepts of WMAN, WWAN and 4G mobile technology into one single sector, i.e. high speed wireless communication for mobile devices. New standards are under way in the mobile broadband area; both LTE and IEEE 802.20 will fall in this category.

Figure: The wireless standard setting landscape

The great influence of IEEE is evident from the network map presented above. IEEE has published standards for most of the organizations developing personal, local and metro wireless network systems. As such, IEEE is supposedly the most influential organization in standardizing wireless (as well as wired) communications through its IEEE 802 standards family. The only widely used technology that does not have a connection to IEEE is USB, which have a standalone development and is entirely industry driven.

Among the mobile telecom standards there are currently just two organizations developing standards, 3GPP and 3GPP2. With the coming joint development of LTE among the telecommunication organizations, the number of large standard organizations in the wireless sector is basically reduced to two, IEEE and 3GPP with USB being a smaller but significant independent player focusing on personal area networks.

Wireless standardization is largely driven by collaborative organizations for the development and by vendor consortia for supplying market oriented activities and uptake.

ITU-T is the ISO equivalent for the telecom sector and it is commonly the final destination for standards with mobile telecom applications. In 2007, WiMAX – essentially developed from technologies used for stationary wireless communication – was accepted as a telecom standard by ITU-T. This highlights the fact that developments within IEEE (stationary wireless) and 3GPP/3GPP2 (mobile wireless) are now converging on mobile broadband communications.

Additional thoughts

One of the most interesting features of wireless technology standards is the fact that the previous barriers between different usage areas are becoming blurred. This happens because of two primary reasons. First off, new standards are being developed, which are able to provide greater speed, better signal ranges and/or higher reliability. This means that IEEE standards, which have traditionally centered around computer applications, are able to compete with telecom standards thanks to development of both greater range (in the case of WiMAX) and deployment (the number of Wi-Fi hot spots in the world have increased significantlly, providing greater network coverage). At the same time telecom standards have begun to allow for greater transmission speeds, which have enabled such things as streamed media, seamless web connection and video calls, functions that were previously not available through mobile devices and in which the wireless spectrum was only provided by Wi-Fi network connections.

Second, the emergence of new devices which comply with several wireless specifications reduces switching costs and increases substitutability.

Telecom standards development has historically been a battle between competing technologies. New developments might however change this picture. The camps behind 3GPP and 3GPP2 have decided to develop a uniform standard for 4G telecommunications, i.e. the Long Term Evolution standard. This might put an end to a standards war that has been ongoing for two decades. However, this might also signal the start of a new battle, that between mobile broadband standards from IEEE and those originating from the telecom industry.

The concept of mobile broadband is rapidly changing the way consumers use wireless technology. With devices now being able to connect to the internet anywhere at any time, new standards will have to be developed which take this functionality further and since there are several solutions available or soon to be available (Wi-Fi, WiMAX, 3G telecommunications standards and LTE for example) the ability of these different standards to attract widespread use might shape the outcome of which standards will be dominant in the future.

Greater network coverage for Wi-Fi and WiMAX could potentially threaten the telecommunication hegemony for CDMA and GSM technology. Up until now, the latter have had the competitive advantage of being the only ones with wide enough networks to allow wireless communication regardless of location.

WiMAX has an important lead time and is already being deployed whereas LTE is still some years into the future. While LTE receives broad support in the mobile industry, any delays of the standard might put WiMAX in such a favorable position that LTE will find it hard to catch up.

It is quite possible that the future of the mobile broadband will be determined by governments rather than by the market. At least two important factors point in this direction: the significant economies of scope and public involvement in the telecom sector and the need for radio spectrum ultimately controlled and allocated by governments.

On the other hand, increasing competition between standards both in the WPAN area (USB and Bluetooth) and for mobile broadband (LTE and WiMAX) suggests that markets still have an important role to play in determining what technologies that are preferred by users.

Mattias Ganslandt