5G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth & UWB: Why do we need them, and how do they all fit?

I recently researched 5G, in order to understand what it was all about, and the reality of any possible new health risks. I came to the conclusions that 1) health risk claims are groundless, and 2) there is no logical reason to upgrade devices at this time to get 5G. But how compelling might it be to upgrade devices to get benefits of new Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or UWB?

Apart from finding that the most significant real risks from mobile data have nothing to do with 5G, there was still the suggestion that, with promised data download speeds of 5G, home Wi-Fi, and possibly even Bluetooth, could all become obsolete at some point. Will everything will become part of the ‘internet of things’ and directly connect to 5G? Is other connectivity still useful, and what connectivity should we look for when buying TVs, headphones, phones, speakers and and even household appliances? What do all the standard for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and even UWB mean and what matters? Many questions!

  • Why do we need all this connectivity stuff?
  • The connectivity Levels: Wide, Local, Personal
    • Wide Area Networks (WAN): Mobile Networks and ‘The Internet’
    • Local Area Networks (LAN): Wi-Fi and Ethernet
    • Personal Area Network (PAN): Bluetooth, UWB or wires
  • Wi-Fi 101
    • Wi-Fi History: The road the Wi-Fi7
    • History Notes
    • Wi-Fi Speed: Not all it seems
    • Frequencies.
    • Wi-Fi is Asymmetric Too
    • Does 5G outperform home internet and therefore home Wi-Fi? (Answer: no)
      • 5G vs Home Internet.
  • Why do we need all this connectivity stuff?
  • The connectivity Levels: Wide, Local, Personal
    • Wide Area Networks (WAN): Mobile Networks and ‘The Internet’
    • Local Area Networks (LAN): Wi-Fi and Ethernet
    • Personal Area Network (PAN): Bluetooth, UWB or wires
  • Wi-Fi 101
    • Wi-Fi History: The road the Wi-Fi7
    • History Notes
    • Wi-Fi Speed: Not all it seems
    • Frequencies.
    • Wi-Fi is Asymmetric Too
    • Does 5G outperform home internet and therefore home Wi-Fi? (Answer: no)
      • 5G vs Home Internet.
      • 5G vs Home Wi-Fi.
    • What Wi-Fi to look for in new tech purchases? (Answer: Wi-Fi6 or WiFi6e)
  • Bluetooth, NFC and UWB 101
    • Bluetooth 101: Bluetooth is two different technologies.
      • Again, Bluetooth is Asymmetric: Central Controllers and Peripherals.
    • UWB (Ultra Wide Band)
    • NFC
    • The future: Bluetooth or UWB?
    • What Bluetooth to look for (5.1/5.2)
  • Conclusion

Why do we need all this connectivity stuff?

There was the famous statement:

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers

Usually attributed to the then head of IBM: John Watson

Then one attributed to Bill Gates:

Here’s the legend: at a computer trade show in 1981, Bill Gates supposedly uttered this statement, in defense of the just-introduced IBM PC’s 640KB usable RAM limit: “640K ought to be enough for anybody.”

The ‘640K’ quote won’t go away — but did Gates really say it?

OK, so Bill Gates may not have made the comment so often attributed to him, and John Watson may also be innocent. However, the myths strike a chord, because we identify with underestimating the increases in demand in computing power.

Current connectivity can deliver video in 4K, higher quality sound than most people choose, although I do find I now have so many Wi-Fi devices I could do with a little more bandwidth. But what else is coming?

Perhaps home robots? The the US$75,000 price of spot robots may seem an expensive path to doing our washing and gardening, but then there are already competing robots like the US$10,000 unitree A1 from a company targeting soon offering robots priced as accessibly as a drone is today, and the makers of spot were just purchased by Samsung. Remember, drones themselves were unimaginable just a few years ago.

The point is, tech is not standing still. The may be new demand on connectivity sooner than we imagine.

The connectivity Levels: Wide, Local, Personal

Wide Area Networks (WAN): Mobile Networks and ‘The Internet’

Mobile networks and internet providers provide connections to a ‘wide area network’ (WAN). The reality is we rarely care about the WAN itself, and all we care about the WAN being connected to the internet.

Technically, all the devices on a mobile network, or to the same home internet provider, form a ‘WAN’. Devices on the same WAN have the potential to interact with each other without making a true internet connection. This could allow special access between servers on the same network, and at one time commonly provided lower cost phone calls between people on the same mobile network. Today the reality is that within a network their may be special access to a service such as Netflix, and the ability of accounts on the same network to be linked, but all we really see is the WAN as a path to the Internet.

Communication between devices on the WAN and the internet, may go through a firewall and be monitored, or for example, all WANs within country may have a set of rules or pass through a national firewall or monitoring system. In reality, for most people this is transparent, and the WAN can be though of as ‘the internet’.

‘Modems’, in either home or mobile equipment provide a connection to a WAN. Each connection to a WAN in theory creates a potential LAN of devices each with their own PAN, but with a mobile phone it is often just a single device using the WAN connection.

Local Area Networks (LAN): Wi-Fi and Ethernet

An internet connected LAN requires at least one ‘WAN’ device, but many other devices on the ‘LAN’ and share that one connection. For most people, ‘WAN’ is a paid for connection to the internet, and ‘LAN’ is a connection (usually by Wi-Fi) paid for by someone else. Ok, there are schemes where you pay for Wi-Fi connections, but hopefully the analogy fits. If someone say ‘is there Wi-Fi?’, they are usually expecting to connect and be able to access the internet.

LANs were actually popular even before the internet, and can share more than an internet connection. There may be shared storage, shared printers, and devices that have web pages that are not available from outside the LAN.

While a ‘router’ or often ‘Wi-Fi’ router (also sometimes mistakenly called a modem), is the usual central controller of the LAN, mobile phones are like both router and small computer in the one unit, and can be the router for other devices on a LAN when using their ‘mobile hotspot’ feature.

Any device connected to a LAN with an internet connection is also a device effectively ‘on the internet’. Despite the original use of LANs for sharing data and facilities on the LAN, often LANs today are seen simply as internet access, and ‘is there Wi-Fi?’, is really a question asked by those seeking only internet access.

Personal Area Network (PAN): Bluetooth, UWB or wires

Yes, there is also a Personal Area Network, which is a network for connecting things that could be considered ‘peripherals’ or accessories of a main computing device. A laptop computer could have a Bluetooth keyboard, or Bluetooth mouse, and as with a mobile phone, could also have Bluetooth headphones. All of the Bluetooth devices form a PAN. In a home or an office, there will typically be one LAN which has a single connection to a WAN. Many devices on the LAN may each have their own PAN, such as when there are several computers, each with their own bluetooth mouse and keyboard.

A mobile phone can may its own PAN of headphones or a connection to a car, and the PAN can operation when the phone is on a Wi-Fi LAN, or using the phones own mobile data WAN connection.

Wi-Fi 101

Wi-Fi History, the road to Wi-Fi7.

The Standards
YearNameVersionFrequencySpeedNotes
1999IEEE 802.11bWi-Fi 1*2.4Ghz11MbpsThe initial popular standard
1999IEEE 802.11aWi-Fi 2*5Ghz54MbpsBetter, but more expensive and far less used
2003IEEE 802.11gWi-Fi 3*2.4GHz54MbpsOFDM (Supports Wi-Fi 1)
2009IEEE 802.11nWi-Fi 42.4GHz, 5Ghz150MbpsMIMO, full backward compatibility introduced
2013/2014IEEE 802.11acWi-Fi 52.4GHz, 5Ghz6.93GbpsApproved 2013, formally approved Jan 2014.
More MIMO channels, more data per channel, Optional Beamforming
2019IEEE 802.11axWi-Fi 62.4GHz, 5Ghz11GbpsFar better supports for more devices on Wi-Fi network
2020IEEE 802.11axWi-Fi 6E2.4GHz, 5Ghz, 6Ghz11Gbps6Ghz greatly increases available spectrum
2024IEEE 802.11beWi-Fi 72.4GHz, 5Ghz, 6Ghz30Gbps
* = not officially numbered, and not fully compatible with each other.
History Notes.

Wireless local-area-networks data as far back as the 1970s but started to become mainstream as wireless ethernet during the 1990s, with the first IEEE 802.11-1997 standard emerging in 1997. The first standards called ‘Wi-Fi’, launched together with the Wi-Fi brand in 1999, as IEEE 802.11b and IEEE 802.11a. The numbers, Wi-Fi 4 , Wi-Fi 5 etc, were only introduced in 2018, equipment released prior to 2018 will have the IEEE 802.11? type branding only.

Wi-Fi Speed: Not all it seems

Speeds listed in the table are theoretical maximum speed. Use of equipment that does not include all optional performance features, distance from the wireless access point, or having more than one device results in lower speeds. Although speeds in the real world with W-Fi may be closer to maximum speed that for mobile networks, they are still maximum rather than typical speed.

Frequencies.

Wi-Fi now (from Wi-Fi 6E) included 3 frequencies. 2.4Ghz, 5Ghz and 6Ghz. All else being equal, the higher the frequency, the shorter distance the signal will work and the more walls and other obstacles will attenuate the signal. All else is not always equal. In the initial two a/b standards, the better technology ‘a’ standard not only used a higher 5Ghz frequency, it also used better technology that could deliver the same range even at that higher frequency. However, reality is that better technology was more expensive the lower cost solution won. 5Ghz lost favour and did not regain prominence until the ‘n’ standard in 2009. Despite this, 5Ghz does provide significantly better performance, and 2.4Ghz is suffers from interference from microwave ovens and radio frequency remote controlled devices. 6GHz is even far less cluttered and delivers even greater performance, but at this time is most relevant for connecting Wi-Fi repeater devices.

Wi-Fi is Asymmetric Too
Inside ‘Orbi’, Four 5 GHz backhaul radio antennas are at the top; two dual-band device connection antennas are set below.

As with phone networks, with the difference between mobile towers and the transmitter/receivers inside phones, there is a difference between a Wi-Fi ‘access point’ built into a router or modem/router, and the Wi-Fi inside a desktop, laptop or mobile device. Some ‘access point’ have their array of antennas in clear view, but even those with no visible antennas usually have at least 6 antennas inside.

No ‘client device’ (laptop, phone etc), needs, or could fit, so many antennas a the role of the client device is different from the access point. The access point must communicate with every Wi-Fi device on the LAN, while each client device need only communicate directly with one device, the access point. Since the access point has better antenna sensitivity, it can receive weaker signals than it sends. This leaves the access point doing the ‘heavy lifting’ in the network, with more powerful sending and more sensitive receiving than client devices.

Does 5G outperform home internet and home Wi-Fi?

5G vs Home Internet.

In short: NO, 5G does not outperform having a home internet connection.

Well, at least not as a technology, although the best 5G would be better than the worst home internet.

Firstly, even mmWave 5G is no match for fibre optic cabling as used in connecting both homes and 5G towers. The internet arriving at a home router can be faster than the technical limits of 5G can ever achieve. Can be. Whether the internet connection delivers on that far greater potential capability depends on the provider.

Further, the ultra fast, high speed ‘mmWave’ 5G, that can work at home internet like speeds, only covers an area, at best comparable with home Wi-Fi. Having the high speed mmWave 5G at home requires having a 5G mmWave tower located at your house. Since 5G towers require fibre optic connection to the internet, then there must also be a fibre optic connection that you could also connect to directly, unless that connection was reserved for use of the 5G provider.

5G using longer distance ‘sub 6’ medium band, could in theory match current home internet speeds, and the towers could be as far as 3km from your house, and still give close to current home internet speeds for those not directly connected to fibre optic cable. This does mean that in some cases, particularly where fibre optic cable comes close to your house, but is not connected to the home, 5G could deliver current home internet speeds, for people who currently are only ‘almost connected’.

But no, 5G is not faster than fibre optic cable for delivering internet to the home, and requires fibre optic cabling to 5G towers, which to deliver home internet speeds, must be located at least very close to your home.

The bottom line is that 5G does not make having home internet redundant.

5G vs Home Wi-Fi.

Again, No: Wi-Fi can out perform 5G.

Regardless of the speed of the internet arriving at your house, there is still a need to copy files and move data within the home, and this could in theory be done with a 5G mini-tower, but 5G is not well designed for that task, and Wi-Fi is.

Ok, current home Wi-Fi 5 in practice delivers up to 1.3Gbps. Which is actually a match for regular 5G, but not as fast as mmWave 5G, suggesting a possible case for swapping your WiFi router for a home 5G mmWave mini tower. But change Wi-Fi 6E at home, and then Wi-Fi will not only deliver performance beyond 5G, it will also be far more robust in delivering peak speeds and provide better range at those peak speeds.

There are also plusses and minuses to 5G to consider. As a minus, this would mean every device in the home would need a mobile connection with the carrier, and most devices have Wi-Fi, but in most countries there not even mmWave mobile phones on the market, doubt about other devices that currently have Wi-Fi all being available in mmWave 5G form, and requiring a contract with a mobile provider. As a possible plus, in a shared household, everyone could have their own arrangement with the mobile carrier, so there would be no shared bill to divide, however, every individual bill would probably be larger than any current shared bill, so no one would be saving any money.

For moving from W-Fi to 5G for the home would be for devices to start integrating expensive High Band, mmWave, 5G modems in place of Wi-Fi.

On the other hand, WiFi 7, which will significantly exceed the data rates of mmWave, will be available on devices before any mass migration to mmWave.

In the end, no, 5G will not make W-Fi redundant. Not in potential speed, availability, or cost.

What Wi-Fi to look for in new tech purchases? (Wi-Fi6 or WiFi6e)

What you need really depends on the device:

  • modem/router: Wi-Fi 6E or beyond
  • television, computer, or ‘premium’ mobile phone : Wi-Fi 6 or beyond
  • music device: Wi-Fi 5 or beyond
  • household appliance or low speed device: Wi-Fi 4 or beyond

While slower devices do not really themselves need the newer standards, they will consume more power and slow down other devices on the network more when using older standards. This is one of the advantages of Wi-Fi 6E, the 6Mhz band is free of older devices slowing everything down.

As of January 2021, there are only one or two routers, and almost no other devices available for 6E. During 2021, phones televisions and computers with 6E should start to appear, but having 6E is far less critical for these devices than for a modem/router. If considering a purchase, it may be worth waiting to get a 6E device, particularly if considering a mesh Wi-Fi system.

It makes no sense to delaying the purchase of a mobile device, laptop or TV in order to get Wi-Fi 6E. Wi-Fi 6 is the way to go, but only insist on Wi-Fi 6 is choosing a ‘high-end’, or recently released device. The longer the purchased item is expected to last, the more important to get Wi-Fi 6, so as mobile phones are often replaced frequently, getting the latest may be least important.

Bluetooth and UWB 101

Interesting Note: The Name ‘Bluetooth’

I was talking to someone and they said “wasn’t it named after someone with a blue tooth?’. Reality is it was named after a Viking King who united all the tribes, ‘King Harald’ or ‘Harald Gormsson’, as his father was ‘Gorm the old’. But why ‘Bluetooth’? It was not his only nickname, and today we do not know what he had it. He may have often had blue teeth from eating blueberries, or there just have been one day when he had a blue-tooth, and for some reason and the name stuck. Or, he could really have had a tooth that was permanently blue for some reason, but we just do not know. We describe a person who likes to eat sweet things as having a ‘sweet tooth’, but it does not mean they have a tooth that is sweet. It could be there was favourite food that was blue. Bluetooth also may have come from a corruption of the English word for chief (“thane”) and dark; Harald was a “dark chieftain.” Or, as one museum curator argues, Harald wore primarily blue clothing – akin to pricey purple clothing — to emphasize his royalty.

Bluetooth 101: Bluetooth is two different technologies.

Technology 1: Bluetooth Classic. Bluetooth started when a system ‘short-link’ system designed to allow connecting headsets to phones was developed by Ericson in Sweden from 1989, patented in 1990, and evolved into an open standard in 1997 whet it adopted the Bluetooth name. The first Bluetooth devices launched in 1999 and there is more history on the Wikipedia page.

Technology 2: Bluetooth LE. Nokia developed their own system to solve a slightly different problem. Launched in 2006 as ‘Wibree’, this system was focused on low power devices needing to communicate less data that needed for a headset. In 2007 it was agreed that at some point in the future, the Bluetooth standard should include ‘wibree’, and the challenge of including two systems in one standard began.

In 2010, Bluetooth 4.0 introduced support for ‘Bluetooth Smart’ (a new name for wibree), with the first devices available in 2011. This completely new ability for very low power devices made Bluetooth 4.0 a major new version of Bluetooth, and allowed devices which previously needed to use other protocols, to now use Bluetooth 4.0. At some later point (I am still looking for when), the name became Bluetooth LE (low energy). Bluetooth 4.1 (2013 Dec) and 4.2(2014 Dec), main introduced enhancements to Bluetooth LE. Blue 5(2016 Dec), 5.1(2019 Jan) and 5.2 (2019 Dec) also all also concentrate on Bluetooth LE, with 5 introducing LE long range , and LE high speed, 5.1 introducing LE angle of departure/arrival to enable locating Bluetooth device, and 5.2 introducing Bluetooth LE audio, potentially making the original Bluetooth somewhat redundant.

There is a trend here, with latest Bluetooth developments all concentrating on what was originally wibree, and is now know as Bluetooth LE, that was first introduced in Bluetooth 4.0.

Again, Bluetooth is Asymmetric: ‘Central’ Controllers and Peripherals.

Like the cellular network and Wi-Fi, there is a ‘central‘, controller device and with Bluetooth ‘peripheral‘ devices. For a Bluetooth network, this means the phone or laptop or desktop computer is typically the ‘central’ controller, and headsets, headphones, earbuds, Bluetooth mice and keyboards, and Bluetooth speakers are all ‘peripherals’.

The central controller, since Bluetooth 4.0, must implement both Bluetooth original and Bluetooth LE in order to be certified as a Bluetooth device, but peripherals can be certified with just a single system.

With mobile networks, the towers are the central controllers and are not purchased by consumers. With Wi-Fi, some people use an ‘access-point’ or modem/router, the central controller for Wi-Fi, supplier by the internet provider in which case they do not exercise choice, but with Bluetooth, both central controllers and peripherals are normally all chosen by the consumer.

UWB (Ultra Wide Band)?

UWB is another standard, ignored for many years but now being pushed by both Apple and Samsung, which is a different take on short range low power wireless to Bluetooth.

NameBluetoothUWB
Original PurposeCommunication between personal device accessoriescommunication, detection and positioning
Range10 meters, but extendable to 100meters10 Meters
Photon Frequencies2.4Ghz to 2.483 Ghz3.1 to 10.6 Ghz (as implemented)
Position DectectionAngle to device (from Bluetooth 5.1)Angle to device, plus distance to device
Maximum Data4Mbps to 675Mbps2.1Mbps

UWB has different design goals, although these goal also include those of Bluetooth. The technology is not new, and has been around since 2002, and in 2008 there were reports the technology was dying. Perhaps the reports were premature, and now both Apple and Samsung are backing the technology as enabler for applications they have found which make UWB make sense. This time, the first devices with UWB were the iPhone 11 devices, but Samsung also is promoting UWB. UWB is promoted as the best placed system to replace keys for cars and homes.

What devices have UWB?

I will be adding to this section as over the next few weeks, as new devices and information becomes available.

NFC

There is even a third short range wireless technology: NFC. NFC is even shorter range, just a few cm, and is the technology built into credit cards and transport cards. The main special feature of NFC is that power, not just data, is transmitted. This allows the smart chip on a credit card to be powered by NFC, and also makes NFC an alternative technology for digital keys.

The future: Bluetooth, NFC or UWB?

Either Bluetooth could co-exit with UWB, adopt UWB as part of the Bluetooth standard as happened with wibree, or develop matching capabilities of its own. NFC is more specialised, and is not about to be replaced in credit cards.

What Bluetooth to look for (4.0/5/5.1/5.2)

With any central (controller) device, you want an absolute minimum of Bluetooth 4.0 as otherwise the central will be incapable of working with Bluetooth LE devices. In fact anything older than Bluetooth 4.0 is missing what has now become the most important part of Bluetooth. Now it is 2021, any new central device devices should support Bluetooth 5 and above, but there is not a necessity to replace technology on the basis of Bluetooth unless the Bluetooth:

  • is older than 4.0
  • is older then 5.0 and LE peripherals need to be more reliable
  • is older than 5.1 and peripherals such as finders need angle features to be workable
  • is older than 5.2 and you expect to move to Bluetooth LE audio devices when they arrive

For peripheral devices, time to update if:

  • older than 4.0 and replacing/recharging batteries is a problem
  • older than 5.0 and the need to be faster or work at a greater distance

However if a peripheral works fine, no need to replace it to update Bluetooth. But when buying new central devices, Bluetooth 5.2, if available, is really a positive.

Conclusion

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wanlanpan.jpg

There is a use for all of the technology: mobile networks, optical internet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, with UWB being the only technology not yet to reach critical mass. Neither Wi-Fi, nor Bluetooth, are about to vanish, and while what version of each of these technologies are available should be considered when choosing new equipment, they alone do not justify buying new laptops or phones, routers etc.

Exceptions:

  • Wi-Fi 6e could justify purchase of new home mesh router if home network speeds are a limiting factor
    • If buying a new mesh router, choose WiFi 6c if possible
  • Bluetooth 5.2 could one day justify purchase of new headphones, but only once infrastructure is in place, and only after your ‘central’ devices all also support 5.2
    • For ‘central’ devices (computers and phones), there is a significant advantage to having Bluetooth 5.2
  • UWB could justify the purchase of tags or even a UWB equipped phone, but only if a UWB locking car or home door locks or other need arises before the technology trickles through to your phone otherwise.

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