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How will the IEEE’s WiFi strategy play into 5G?

IEEE 5G Princeton

original image © IEEE from Princeton 5G Meeting 2016

  • 5G Roadmap expected from IEEE before October
  • Expect the focus to be on Connectivity, Ubiquity and Verticals
  • 802.11 WiFi standard evolution targets IoT applications
  • Seeks to broaden the 5G ecosystem

The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) has been rather restrained with its public position regards 5G and the ITU’s IMT-2020 standards process, in stark contrast to a decade ago when it submitted its 802.16 WiMAX standard as a candidate technology for IMT-Advanced (aka 4G). As events subsequently proved, WiMAX lost out to LTE for a variety of reasons, not least because of LTE’s status as an evolutionary technology from existing 3G and GSM-based architectures.

Throughout 2016, when vendors and industry associations were falling over themselves to convey their view of what 5G could and should be, and when the 3GPP group was already hard at work integrating 5G ideas into its ongoing standardisation roadmap, the IEEE declined to be drawn in to the melee. Yet the IEEE (whose organisation dwarfs that of 3GPP) is the custodian of WiFi (802.11) and its many iterations, which surely must play a role in future 5G networks?

Apart from a press statement issued at February’s Mobile World Congress event – that basically announced a dedicated 5G web portal listing interesting articles, publications, ideas and a schedule of regional workshops – there’s been precious little information. Last week, however, a release from ZTE let slip some of the work being done of aligning WiFi with cellular 5G.

The release was intended to congratulate Sun Bo, the company’s technology standardisation expert, on being recognized for his contributions to new wireless network standards by the IEEE. He received an Outstanding Contribution Award for his work on IEEE 802.11-2016, a wireless LAN standard that ZTE says “will become a component of next-generation 5G communications technologies”.

The IEEE’s standards can be a minefield of letters and numbers, but this latest one is worth investigation. 802.11-2016 cover the exchange of information between local and metropolitan area networks, with enhancements to the existing medium access control (MAC) and physical layer (PHY) functions.

“The purpose of this standard is to provide wireless connectivity for fixed, portable, and moving stations within a local area,” states the official IEEE submission. “This standard also offers regulatory bodies a means of standardising access to one or more frequency bands for the purpose of local area communication.”

What it effectively does is roll-up a number of corrections, amendments and changes to the 802.11 core baseline standard, especially those created for 802.11ac and 802.11ad, whilst maintaining backwards compatibility with the increasingly popular 802.11ac.

“ZTE believes WLAN will be an important component of 5G, as the flexible core network structure of 5G will support multiple types of access networks including WLAN,” said the vendor. The standard was approved by the IEEE Board last December and (as far as we can tell) is now awaiting official publishing.

The evolving 802.11 family

The IEEE has made much play of the fact that it wants WiFi-based access technologies to become more important for IoT applications. This is perhaps its main short-term focus, whilst looking to leverage this work into 5G via IoT.

The 802.11ad standard was introduced back in 2012, but has been painfully slow to gain commercial support. It operates on 60GHz unlicensed spectrum and provides very high throughput (Gigabit speeds) for in-room applications. There was much hope that home entertainment OEMs would latch onto its capabilities, but not so far. With both transmit and receive devices needing to be 802-11ad-enabled, it makes it doubly difficult to bring solutions to market.

In light of this, the IEEE decided last year to create 802.11-2016, which combines 802.11ad with the more popular and established 802.11ac. It also beefed up its indoor location-based capabilities to an accuracy of around two metres. Why? Because nobody wants to be just a connectivity provider – if you can use this to create an additional service that could be monetised, such as location, then your prospects for success are greater.

The location capabilities are being further explored with the proposed P802.11az standard (the “p” signifies a proposal) that promises to improve accuracy even further to below the one metre level, even down to just a few centimetres. It will be interesting to see what new IoT and smart home business models and ideas arise from having this level of personalisation and targeting.

There are a couple of other variants to consider with 5G in mind. The 802.11ah standard has been around in one form or another for about a decade (and is sometimes called HaLow), although the latest version may come to market later this year offering support for 900MHz spectrum – and hence extended range (the lower the frequency, the higher the range) and low power operation. This is the technology that the IEEE hopes will catch on big-time with IoT applications, especially given that it may be able to reach distances of up to one kilometre.

P802.11ba is a little further away from possible commercialisation. Its attraction to the IoT market is that it uses two separate radios – one to “wake up” the device and the other to handle the data communications. The idea is that by using two radios you can ensure low latency and energy efficiency, which are conflicting characteristics within a single radio (it’s very difficult to ensure both).

Finally, there is one more variant that could come into play for 5G. The proposed P802.11ax amendment aims to provide wireless connectivity for fixed, portable, and moving stations within a local area. It also offers regulatory bodies a means of standardising access to one or more frequency bands for LAN operations. One proposed mode of operation would be capable of supporting four-fold improvement in the average throughput per station in a dense deployment scenario, while maintaining or improving the power efficiency per station. Supporting devices would operate in frequency bands between 1GHz and 6GHz and be backward compatibility and coexist with legacy 802.11 devices operating in the same band. Throughputs could be in the order of 10Gbit/s or higher. Just don’t expect it anytime soon.

The IEEE’s 5G strategy

The IEEE is about far more than 802.11 unlicensed wireless. It is a valuable engineering and technical resource for the industry, as well as the creator of standards. The keyword here appears to be “ecosystem”. Rather than create a competing on, the IEEE appears to be looking to support and augment the existing ecosystem. At the moment, though, it is focused more on discussion and analysis.

“The advancement of 5G technologies requires a great deal of consideration relative to the development of 5G use cases and their context for application throughout the real world,” said Ashutosh Dutta, co-chair of the IEEE 5G initiative. “IEEE 5G is able to build upon IEEE work in several key emerging technology initiatives such as IoT, Smart Cities, Smart Materials, and Brain and Digital Senses. Accessing the technical breadth and depth of IEEE, we will help unlock the potential of the broader 5G ecosystem.”

“4G, even though very successful, has still not brought broadband Internet to nearly half the world population,” said Gerhard Fettweis, co-chair of the IEEE 5G Initiative and Vodafone chair professor at TU Dresden, articulating perhaps one of the most uncomfortable truths about the current flagship cellular system. “This is why we are taking the time to host 5G Summits around the world, educating, understanding, and integrating this feedback into our collective thinking so we may develop the appropriate contextual outputs.”

One of its more interesting concepts is centred around “Frugal 5G”, which is designed to help those who are still using 3G technologies to transition toward the next generation of wireless in an effective, interoperable, and standardised way. Details, however, are thin on the ground.

“The ‘Frugal 5G’ concept, with its lower investment requirement, will be important to realising connectedness in many developing areas,” added Konstantinos Karachalios, managing director of the IEEE Standards Association. “For many regions of developing countries, one could use and possibly further adapt specific aspects of 5G that fit their needs and can promote economic development without necessarily implementing the full menu. This would contribute to the idea of an inclusive 5G.”

The IEEE believes that the 5G ecosystem is large enough to cover many different areas, and won’t just be an evolution of LTE. It supports a rethink of the “G” generational approach for architectures, core networks and antennas, believing that new services, technologies and frequencies will lead to new industries and business models. It sees multi connectivity across bands and technologies together with carrier aggregation.

It also intends to identify standardisation opportunities and gaps related to 5G, to facilitate the development of new 5G technical architectures. But it’s arriving late to the party, having just held its inaugural 5G meeting last August. Yet it sees no rush – its initial 5G Roadmap concept, set out in December, sets out three distinct timeframes for research, innovation and technology – short term (up to 3 years), mid-term (5 years) and long-term (10 years). The IEEE plans to publish its 5G roadmap between now and October, although initial conversations suggest it will be focused around Connectivity, Ubiquity and Verticals.

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