by Sam Benzacar, President, Anatech Electronics
So much happens, so fast, in the wireless industry and electronics in general that it’s easy to lose track of how many changes have occurred in a relatively short time. For example, in 2008, the FCC had just given wireless carriers the green light to turn off their analog networks, Apple introduced the iPhone 3, Google released the Chrome browser, Windows 7 was about to be released, and netbooks were the rage.
Now, the cellular industry is promising multi-gigabit downstream speeds (incredibly, using millimeter wavelengths), the iPhone has reached its tenth generation with a flagship phone that costs as much as a decent laptop computer (an iPhone 3 with 16 Gbytes of RAM costs $199), Chrome is now the browser, Windows 10 has been around for nearly 4 years, and the netbook is, thankfully, dead.
It’s typical this time of year to look back on the preceding year and ponder what’s coming in the next, the latter of which I’m taking the risk of doing in this column.
Will the huge challenges presented by millimeter wavelengths prove to be too much for the cellular industry? So far it seems not, but we’ll soon find out as the first “5G” smartphones with millimeter-wave capability are coming next year, and the carriers are feverishly deploying small cells to serve them. I still haven’t come to grips (no pun intended) with how well millimeter-wave signals will propagate with a hand around the phone.
The most visible application of 5G will be for fixed wireless access (FWA) as competition for cable with speeds of 1 Gb/s, maybe more. I believe the first 5G smartphones will roll out from some vendors (but not Apple, which is wisely waiting until 2020) with less than spectacular results, and FWA will be available in some places from Verizon and AT&T.
Home automation is spreading its tentacles beyond applications like HVAC, smart locks, and lighting. Amazon and Google are on the IoT bandwagon in a big way, and it won’t be long before every car will have Alexa, Google Assistant, or both as optional and ultimately standard features. But this is just the tip of the IoT iceberg because “smart” cities make this look like a science project, and they’re already being constructed. Interestingly enough, Spain seems to be leading this charge, with everything from garbage can sensors to parking and a lot more, but there are others, some in the U.S., as well. IoT will begin to deliver on its promise in a big way this year, from connected LED lighting and other applications in municipalities and cities, as well as in dozens of industrial applications. In short, IoT has finally come from acronym to accomplishment.
DoD is in full-development mode owing to technological advances in Russia and China and the Army in particular needs a decent solution for battlefield communications as well as a huge investment in EW. I think it’s safe to predict that 2018-19 will be a very good year for field and waves.
5G needs more backhaul and Wi-Fi is a (and perhaps the) solution. For the rest of us, routers for 802.11ax (now called Wi-Fi 6 with downstream rates 37% faster than 802.11ac) are already shipping and the technology should be in smartphones later next year. Not to be outdone at millimeter-wavelengths, there’s 802.11ad (Wi-Gig) and 802.11ay that operate at 2.4, 5, and 60 GHz to deliver downstream rates of nearly 7 Gb/s. So, 802.11ax products will be offered by all major router manufacturers in a few months, and later in 2019 or possibly 2020, it will be joined by Wi-Gig, which should actually be called Wi-Fi 7 as the Wi-Fi Alliance has finally decided to make various Wi-Fi permutations easier to understand.
The next generation of over-the-air TV broadcast is almost here, and it’s nothing like what’s available now. I predict that cord cutters will increasingly combine this with broadband, putting an even bigger dent in cable subscriptions.
Millions of people in the U.S. and Canada have nothing approaching “real” broadband, except for services provided by Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs). However, the government is throwing money at wireless carriers to make serving rural areas fairly profitable. In addition, carrier-based FWA eliminates the need to lay huge amounts of fiber, and IoT is a new market opportunity, so more rural areas will finally have broadband service and WISPs will need to up their game.
While these may be pretty safe positions, the RF and microwave industry has a way of turning the best intentions on their heads while also offering solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. We’ll see how all this plays out in the coming year.