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WiFi 802.11 continues to play catch-up with cellular in the race towards 5G

wifi - Yahoo

© Flickr/cc-licence/Yahoo

  • Will the IEEE be able to contribute towards the IMT-2020 standard?
  • What’s next for the 802.11 evolution to 5G?
  • ITU 5G standards process is already underway
  • Can 802.11 participate in the broader 5G ecosystem planned for 2020?

A report released yesterday from ABI Research finds that WiFi access points based on 802.11ac steadily gained momentum over the past year, rising to represent 39 per cent of total Wi-Fi access points shipped in 2015. With new 802.11ac Wave 2 products entering the market later this year, this share is set to increase to around 65 per cent by the close of 2016. Then there’s 802.11ad (or WiGig as it’s also known) to add to the mix. With the first access points set to be introduced this year, it will still likely be a year or two before the technology gains significant market share in the overall WiFi CPE market.

It all adds up to ABI Research believing that WiFi access point shipments will exceed 204 million units in consumer applications and 19 million units in enterprises by 2020, with the majority of those supporting 802.11ac. But by 2020, we will also see the first commercial 5G networks in operation. What role will 802.11-based WiFi play in this new connected world? And what are the next steps for the IEEE if it wants to submit an 802.11-based standard as a candidate for 5G (or more accurately, the ITU’s IMT-2020 project)?

Proposing 802.11 as a 5G technology

The interest is already there. After a brief flirtation with Wi-Max successor 802.16m, the focus is now back on 802.11. But which one? It could well be 802.11ax or 802.11ah, or something entirely new. But one thing is certain – the IEEE doesn’t want to be left out of the party and is determined that “WiFi” is well and truly on the guest list. As Andrew Myles of Cisco said in a presentation last month, they need to exert a “stronger influence to ensure Wi-Fi industry and market experiences in a diversity of use cases are reflected in 5G requirements,” and “to ensure that ‘others’ do not succeed in promoting requirements that implicitly prioritise other technologies over Wi-Fi; e.g. LAA, LTE-U, MuLTEfire.”

And why not? The public WiFi providers are already concerned about the advancement of cellular into unlicensed bands, and this will only intensify as we move through LTE-Advanced and into eventual 5G territory. You could argue that the IEEE missed out on opportunities in the 3G standards process, although not for lack of trying, with Wi-Max (802.16) a decent effort that was eventually crushed by the might of cellular as it consolidated its evolution around LTE (and speaking of 4G, it was generally believed that it wasn’t that relevant to 802.11 because of its mobility requirements – unlike IMT-2020 and its inclusion of new usage models, such as IoT).

It’s time now for the IEEE 802 group to start the process of submitting an 802.11-based standard as a IMT-2020 candidate technology. The idea – proposed by Cisco just last month – is that they create a forum for future 5G work and send a liaison to the ITU expressing the IEEE 802’s intent to participate in the IMT-2020 process. It may well also liaise with other wireless groups, such as the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wireless Broadband Alliance and 3GPP.

However, not all 802 group members are convinced. A group presentation from last November states that: “Our experience of meaningful collaboration with 3GPP is poor”. 

Rapidly approaching deadlines

By June this year, the ITU intends to have details of all key parameter names and definitions from interested parties, and will then request target values to match its 5G objectives, which in turn need to be received by October. Completed requirements will be received by the ITU’s IMT-2020 Evaluation Working Group by next February, when the formal 5G submission process begins.

The other factor for the WiFi community to consider is the IEEE’s broader interest in 5G. Its Standards Association (IEEE-SA) already has a 5G initiative, which may or may not be aligned with the work from the 802 group. The IEEE-SA is part of the Global Standards Collaboration (GSC), which also includes ETSI, ITU, TIA, ARIB and more.

At the last GSC meeting in July, participants recognised the importance of an ecosystem view of 5G technologies, standardisation, implementation and operation, stressing the need for effective collaboration between all interests involved. Only with strong collaboration will the targets imposed by the IMT-2020 timeline be met. Expect an update from the GSC’s next meeting in April this year.

We should learn more about the IEEE-SA’s 5G initiative and how IEEE 802 might get involved in March. But it does appear that the organisation is playing catch-up to the 3GPP-led cellular work towards IMT-2020, and if really doesn’t want to let the opportunity slip then it needs to up its game and come up with a strategy now. Time is running out.

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