Rumors of Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

Bruce Miller


About four years ago, I met with the wireless engineering lead of a large smartphone manufacturer. With advances in LTE technology on the horizon at the time, his position was that in 5 years or less, Wi-Fi would fade into oblivion. As a marketeer for a Wi-Fi company, I certainly had an opposing position, even though it was not appropriate to express at the time.

Fast forward to today and clearly Wi-Fi is alive and well, and remains a healthy growing market. My point here is not to say who was right or wrong four years ago. But rather recognize the fact that our ever expanding appetite for data and staying connected requires – and will continue to require – many different types of wireless technologies. The Wi-Fi vs. cellular discussion has been going on for years but the reality is, there is the need for both. And much more…

Take a look at the smartphone in your pocket, or on the table next to you. It contains no less than 5 types of radio technologies, each with different capabilities and serving different purposes. One way to classify these technologies is as Near, Personal, Local, Wide, and Global Area Networks (NANs, PANs, LANs, WANs, and GANs). The following table summarizes the characteristics of each:

Type Example Range* Speed* Common Use Case
Near Field NFC 10 cm 200 Kbps Mobile payments
Personal Area Bluetooth 10 m 2 Mbps Connecting accessories
Local Area Wi-Fi 100 m 200 Mbps Connecting to Internet on site
Wide Area LTE 20 km 20 Mbps Connecting to Internet anywhere
Global GPS 20,000 km NA Location service

*Representative values to facilitate comparison. Not indicative of specific averages or maximums

The types of use cases each of these wireless technologies address vary widely. Each serves its purpose, and collectively, they enable a myriad of applications we use on our devices. In particular, our smartphones are the power users of these communication technologies and typically supporting all 5 listed in the table. Laptops and tablets normally support only PAN and LAN, and optionally WAN and GAN.

The use cases for wireless technologies overlap in many cases, which feeds the discussion pitting one vs. another. For example, you could select Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to stream music to your laptop. Wi-Fi or LTE can be used to connect your smartphone to the Internet, though you might choose Wi-Fi when it is available to avoid data charges from your mobile provider.

But these technologies complement each other as well. For example, Bluetooth will work with Wi-Fi to increase communication bandwidth when connecting smartphones to laptops. You can use Wi-Fi to connect your devices to a personal hotspot, which in turn uses LTE to connect to the Internet. And both Wi-Fi and cellular are used in assisted GPS to more quickly determine a device’s location since GPS by itself can take a long time (10+ minutes) to initially locate.

As we look forward, no doubt we will see significant innovation drive wireless tech for years to come. New 5G mobile networks will replace 4G/3G infrastructure over the next decade. New variations of 802.11 Wi-Fi, such as WiGig, HaLow, and Super Wi-Fi, are at various stages of maturity. Change is the only constant in communications technology, and Wi-Fi is well positioned as a key component that has already proven it can successfully adapt to change.

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