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It’s All in a Name or Is It? - WiFi, Bluetooth and Cellular Standards (2G,3G,4G)

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We just like to peg a name to things. It helps us to identify with what we're getting. Unfortunately, this habit can also work to our detriment. In the wireless world of electronics, when a generic name gets associated with a particular technology, it may prevent us from seeing or understanding that there are differences in performance and underlying technology in many cases.

Let's look at examples of three technologies, starting with WiFi. WiFi is a short-range wireless protocol used for connecting to the Internet. The WiFi guys have at least got us to understand that the underlying technology standard is 802.11, which is from the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers). But it really goes beyond that, because the 802.11 standard has several versions: a, b, g, and n. Do you know the difference? Maybe you just know that lately manufacturers and retail outlets have begun selling the “n” version, so that must be the fastest. The ‘g’ version is still available and it runs at 54Mbps. But wait a minute. Do you also realize there are various speeds of the 802.11n standard, depending on how the device and the antenna is configured? A “bread and butter” cheap 802.11n radio will likely be 150Mbps. Then it jumps to 300Mbps, of which there are a wide number of devices that run at that speed. You can also get 450Mbps, but the selection of devices running at this speed is very limited. The theoretical maximum speed is 600Mbps. But, very recently, I was looking at a teardown of a Netgear router touting a speed of 750Mbs. How did they do that? Well, it took an innovative design using two 802.11n chips plus the use of five antennas and two frequencies: 2.4MHz and 5MHz.

The second example is Bluetooth (BT). BT has several versions: 2.0, 2.1, 3.0, and now 4.0 devices, also known as BT LE (low energy). As you move up from version 2.0 to 3.0, the speed increases. Then you get to version 4.0. For this latest version, designers completely changed the radio to meet very low-power requirements. As a result, there's been a significant cut in data performance. Nor is a BT 4.0 device backwards compatible with other versions. So, if you have BT 4.0 device, it's likely you also have another BT radio on the chip to support backward compatibility. The idea behind BT 3.0 was that it would be a technology for transferring data to peripherals such as printers, photo frames and other peripherals. But the WiFi guys got wind of that and developed WiFi Direct, which essentially does the same thing. The BT 4.0 standard was designed specifically for low-power devices such as sensors, which are used in home area networks (HANS) and body area networks (BANS). It is a boon to medical equipment vendors, mostly need only BT 4.0.

The third example concerns cellular standards. We've all gotten use to hearing the terms 2G, 3G, and 4G by now. The 2G, 3G, and 4G standards were iterations of next-generation mobile communication technology. But the various data access speeds that each standard supports have come to define these terms. Basically, if you have a 2G phone, forget about surfing the Internet. What you're left with is a basic phone with SMS (text messaging) but no e-mail or WiFi. The 3G band of technologies allow for mobile access to the Internet. The speed was only marginal to OK when the technology was first introduced. However, though the speed of 3G communication has improved, we still call it 3G. With the subsequent introduction of WiMAX, HSPA+, and LTE technologies, there was a significant increase in data-download speed. The ITU (International Telecommunications Union) basically set the standard for what qualified to be called 4G. They defined next-generation 4G technology as having a download speed of 1Gbps. Everyone considered that a challenging goal that would require several steps to achieve. The following graph shows the theoretical speeds of HSPA+, WiMAX, and LTE as well as the ITU's future desired "4G" goals.

3G-4G SpeedsThe consumers use of the term 4G on mobile handsets dates to the summer of 2008. When Sprint introduced their new WiMAX network, they wanted to let everyone know that it could deliver a substantial improvement in throughput rate, from 1.6Mbps up to 12Mbps. However, T-Mobile had also upgraded its GSM network with HSPA+, and it was equally as fast. That's when the marketing wars began. If Sprint could call their new network 4G, then why couldn't T-Mobile do so as well? AT&T also jumped into the fray with its HSPA+ network. Finally, Verizon, the largest carrier in the U.S., also began using the 4G label to describe their new LTE network, which it launched in late 2010. The ITU saw what the carriers had done and basically backed off on their definition of what constituted a 4G network. Perhaps with the technology needing to catch up to the standards, the desired 4G 1Gbps will actually be "5G" when its finally released. The LTE guys are calling it LTE-Advanced and the WiMAX folks are calling theirs 802.16m.

That being said, 4G is not only faster than 3G, but the underlying technology can be different as well. The previous graph indicates the relative difference in speed, using theoretical maximums for downloads. But the reality is a far cry from that. For example, a test done by Epitiro, "a leading provider of service assurance solutions for fixed and wireless network operators and regulatory authorities across the global telecommunications industry," indicated that the real-world performance of LTE was closer to 36Mbps for download and only 1.7Mbps for upload. That's just over 10% of the theoretical download speed.

Then I saw Rogers advertisement from a local carrier in Canada, advertising its network as even faster than 4G. That blew me away. What's the consumer to think?

LTE is live in Ottawa

So I feel for the consumer. Because, if you don't spend significant time researching what you are buying, you won't be getting what you think.

This insight into the various wireless technologies has been summarized and simplified in a series of wireless reports from TechInsights. Get the scoop on who the real semiconductor players are in the wireless world and the technology behind the technologies (Check out our Wireless Patent Landscape Report)

Senior Analyst @ TechInsights

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