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  • Writer's pictureDean Anthony Gratton

It’s Been a Short-range RF Winter

I have this strange and peculiar feeling that the short-range radio frequency (RF) domain might have reached its plateau and, perhaps, comfortably so.

Developing the best wireless technology

I feel blessed and privileged to have worked in the short-range sector as either a software engineer, developing numerous short-range consumer devices, or as a solution architect, where I would use my blue-sky thinking ability to see the future. I have also written several books on the subject. However, over the last 30 years or so, the industry has largely been static and void of evolution. This is not a terrible thing, I hasten to add, since we have all become comfortable with the various flavors of wireless technology, to include Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, near field communications (NFC) and Zigbee, along with the unique application and use cases they respectively offer.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a flurry of activity in this sector, where it was viewed as necessary to make everything wireless and to discard the cable. With the availability of the industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) band, many companies were open to take advantage of the spectrum. However, as everybody rushed to create their interpretation of the best wireless technology, it consequently became a crowded space.

All wireless technologies were competing

As such, the various flavors of RF technology had to adapt to ensure their technology would interoperate, coexist and the experience (ICE) to remain harmonious for the end user. So, Bluetooth wireless technology introduced adaptive frequency hopping (AFH), if a particular channel was being used; likewise, Wi-Fi employed carrier sense multiple access (CSMA) / collision avoidance (CA) mechanisms into the protocol which, in turn, provided effective coordination of air traffic when there was too much noise. Essentially, AFH and CSMA/CA would listen first on the air interface to ensure that a channel was clear before it made a transmission. Other wireless technologies too offered their respective versions of overcoming interference, ensuring a harmonious existence in the crowded space. Similar techniques were also used across a fixed infrastructure such as Ethernet to ensure it was clear to send any data.

I can recall, quite amusingly, how during the development of various wireless technologies the furor and hype had reached an incredible level, with numerous industry presses pitting one technology against another, perhaps fueled by the industry itself because, ultimately, each wanted to be the dominant and preferred technology choice – this is something we continue to witness today with the excitement surrounding 5G. In fact, I remember how Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, for example, were considered competing technologies, but I could see how each served its own respective application spaces. More so, one Bluetooth profile, which I was tasked to develop as part of the Bluetooth special interest group (SIG), was the LAN access profile (LAP) in the early 2000s, where the profile was eventually disbanded because its proposition was not viable or realistic against a very young Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were considered competing technologies, but each served its own respective application spaces.

Each wireless technology served their application space

Wi-Fi addressed a specific problem. Ordinarily, most, if not all, small businesses or home offices would use a local area network (LAN) to interconnect their computers, printers and other devices using Ethernet. It seemed a natural evolution to connect these devices wirelessly, so Wi-Fi was developed and introduced as a wireless LAN (WLAN) technology, although many consumers today incorrectly associate Wi-Fi, as the internet. On the other hand, Bluetooth wireless technology, in its immaturity, attempted to address any and all problems, making it the classic jack of all trades and master of none. But today, Bluetooth has settled and now comfortably accommodates several applications in your personal space.

NFC and radio frequency identification (RFID) and Bluetooth wireless technology were also considered as competing technologies but, again, NFC served a specific use case, where an NFC-enabled device would operate in distances of no more than 10cm, so it was inherently secure. We now see the technology being used in mobile payments and other similar transactions. Zigbee has also enjoyed some popularity across the smart home and, more specifically, in the smart metering sector, enabling communication across the home with the in-home display (IHD) and keeping the occupier up-to-date with their energy consumption in pseudo real-time.

We’re all ubiquitously connected to the WAN

Now, what technologies occupy your smart home? Naturally, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are your regular inhabitants, creating both your home area network (HAN) and personal area network (PAN) and perhaps you have Zigbee, if you have chosen a smart meter. You may also have a host of other proprietary technologies, which have become integral yet seamless in enabling a plethora of devices across your home, all taking advantage of the ISM band.

Furthermore, we personally carry other wireless devices on us forming our body area network (BAN) such as a smartphone, a smartwatch, a Fitbit or other similar health-conscious devices that monitor our wellbeing and fitness. Such devices may use a combination of Bluetooth and ANT+ wireless or other bespoke technology, for example, to enable our health ecosystem. However, let’s not forget that all these devices, at some point, with our permission, are all connected to the wide area network (WAN) – that ubiquitous network that is open to all, namely the internet.

Until next time …

So what’s next? What can we expect to see emerge from the short-range RF sector? Will it evolve, or are we comfortable with the current range of technologies serving their specific applications? Hang on, I’m putting on my Fedora and I’m now reaching for the blue sky – nope, right now, as a futurist, I have nothing! All I see are dead iPhones and wasted charging cables.

So, this is where a “rummaging through my large chest and seeking my crystal ball” Dr. G signs off.

Originally published in Technically Speaking.


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a technology influencer, analyst & futurist 

I dispel the rumours, gossip and hype surrounding new technology

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