Why 5G will be disruptive

With more spectrum and friendlier small cell regulations, 5G will have the wind at its back.

Every next-generation mobile phone standard is greeted by some skepticism. Fifth-generation technology has certainly endured its share. Critics say it’s just a collection of incremental improvements, is being used as an excuse to restrict competition (for instance, by banning Chinese vendors from the US market), and will drive up prices.

However, in a report published by my company in collaboration with Rysavy Research, we conclude that   5G is uniquely positioned to enable new products, services, and business models. While no next-generation technology is a panacea, 5G’s flexible and scalable architecture comes with expansive new spectrum and rules easing the deployment of small cells. That’s a powerful combination.

Take a closer look at the new spectrum allocations being made in anticipation of 5G. Up until mid-2016, the total amount of spectrum available to US mobile phone operators was about 750 MHz. In July of 2016, the FCC allocated 3,850 MHz of new spectrum in the 20 and 30 GHz bands for 5G. That single action increased the amount of spectrum available to mobile operators by more than 500%. And we aren’t done yet: The FCC has begun proceedings to allocate additional licensed spectrum for 5G, and operators have been testing the use of unlicensed spectrum in the 57-71 GHz band.

Network densification is another way to dramatically increase the capacity of mobile phone networks. New laws and regulations have been enacted to make the deployment of small cells easier and less expensive. The FCC has adopted small cell rules that speed site approvals, simplify site preparation, and ensure local governments charge fair and reasonable site leasing fees. Plus, more than 20 states have enacted friendly regulations for small cells.

Providing high-speed backhaul for small cells was once thought to be a major challenge. However, many existing macro cell sites were converted to fiber backhaul as part of the upgrade to 4G, and that fiber can also be used to feed 5G small cells. Release 16 of the 3GPP specification will support integrated access and backhaul, enabling shared use of millimeter wave spectrum, ensuring there is a wireless alternative when a fiber connection either isn’t possible or is too expensive.

Think of 5G as not only a new air interface but a new architecture. Operators will have a choice of low-band, mid-band, and high-band spectrum (from 600 MHz to >100 GHz) for different environments and business strategies. Network slicing, a form of virtualization, will permit operators to allocate core network, radio network, and device resources for different use cases. Consequently, 5G networks will be able to efficiently serve applications with diverse speed, content, and QoS requirements.

Like most next-generation wireless standards, 5G promises faster throughput. But 5G also promises lower latency. In many applications, latency is just as important as data rate. Enhancements including core network upgrades, faster and more efficient backhaul, and edge computing will enable operators to guarantee high quality user experiences for applications such as multi-player gaming and virtual reality.  Low latency and high reliability create opportunities for mobile operators in vertical industries such as manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, and energy monitoring/control.

Thanks to 5G’s flexibility and scalability, operators have a wide choice of 5G deployment strategies. Operators can make extensive use of existing infrastructure. Given the different possible gradations of fixed broadband and mobile broadband services, operators will be able to target specific applications and types of users. Tier 1 operators in the US have mapped out different deployment scenarios; each operator is leveraging its unique assets and placing bets on specific market opportunities.

Our research suggests a number of new business models will emerge. Verizon is already competing with cable and telco operators in select locations for fixed broadband service to the home. The business model is viable where the operator already has a high density of cell sites. It’s also viable for newly constructed low-density small cell networks, in areas with relatively high home densities, with the appropriate financing. As the cost to deploy small cells operating at millimeter wave frequencies declines, the range of locations in which mobile operators can compete for the fixed broadband market will expand. Consumers can be offered discounts for purchasing mobile and fixed broadband services from the same operator.

An interesting trend among younger consumers has been observed in developing countries. Millennials are purchasing smartphones and using them for phone, Internet, and TV. Mid-band spectrum (3.5 GHz) doesn’t have the capacity to compete head-on with cable operators, but it can double capacity, enabling lower-cost data plans. For busy and cost-conscious Millennials, a smartphone plus a higher data allowance plan (60-100 gigabytes) is an attractive alternative to multiple devices and services. There could be a market for smartphones that unfold to create a larger screen. A smartphone can also be used to drive a smart TV when a larger display is desired.

Other new products and services will depend on the creativity of manufacturers and operators. For instance, could the future of radio broadcasting be streaming over mobile networks? The migration of AM and FM broadcasting to digital broadcasting has so far had limited success. LTE (4G) supports multicasting and it’s likely that a 5G multicasting standard is coming. While terrestrial AM/FM broadcasts generally only reach a metropolitan area audience, mobile networks have the potential to reach an entire country. Perhaps the future of AM/FM broadcasting is mobile streaming with satellite networks providing coverage in rural and remote areas.

There is no guarantee that any next-generation mobile technology will be a success. And there will always be growing pains. But with a global market of several billion users, and a decade between technology generations, it’s not surprising that there is a backlog of technical advances that are best addressed through new standards. With more spectrum and friendlier small cell regulations, 5G will have the wind at its back. Operators will be hunting for new business opportunities, and enterprises are on the target list.

This post is based on commentary by Ira Brodsky that first appeared at Computerworld. Brodsky is a Senior Analyst with Datacomm Research and is the author of five books about technology. Brodsky focuses on mobile solutions for payments, retail automation, and health care.

Networks for a yottabyte world

The future requires networks that are qualitatively more flexible, scalable, efficient and manageable. Network function virtualization and software defined networks are the way forward

The rate at which telecom networks are growing and changing is nothing short of fantastic. It’s always risky to embrace a new paradigm, but for network carriers and customers, the risks of waiting could be greater.

Network function virtualization (NFV) and software defined networks (SDN) represent a radical departure from the traditional way of building, managing and evolving telecom networks. It’s often described as a switch from proprietary boxes to commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. While there is a potentially significant cost-savings in making such a switch, cost-savings is not the main driving force. The ability to quickly implement new business models, to deliver applications on demand, and to automatically provision and tear down resources are what make NFV and SDN so potentially disruptive.

Not your father’s networks

The growth in telecom traffic over the last 25 years has been mind-boggling. Since introduction of the Mosaic web browser in 1993, Internet traffic has grown by a factor of 10 million. Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, mobile data traffic has grown by a factor of 1,000.

While these numbers partly reflect humble beginnings, growth in Internet and mobile IP traffic continues at an exponential pace. According to Cisco, over the next year monthly Internet traffic is expected to increase by approximately 24,000 petabytes. Monthly mobile data traffic is expected to increase by nearly 8,000 petabytes. To put this into perspective, consider that it would take 2,000 years to play one petabyte of MP3 music.

The growth in network transmission rates has also been amazing. In 2000, cable modems offered a modest performance advantage over dial-up modems. Today, cable operators are delivering speeds up to 1 Gbps. Mobile networks, on the other hand, had no speed advantage over dial-up modems in 2000. Recently, 4G networks have demonstrated the ability to deliver 1 Gbps, while emerging 5G networks promise peak speeds up to 20 Gbps.

Latency can be just as important—or even more important—than data rates. In highly interactive applications, fast data rates can’t make up for slow response time. This is why 5G networks promise latency on the order of 1 millisecond where needed. (You can’t get much better than that without bumping into the laws of physics.) Low latency requires bringing the applications and data closer to users—edge computing.

There is a parallel effort to digitally transform operators’ OSS/BSS (operations support system/business support system). These are applications that sit on top of the network. In the past, it took operators months of planning, development, and testing to introduce new services for customers. That is no longer acceptable—competition waits for no one.

NFV/SDN vendors and early adopters

Where do we stand today? Most of the people I’ve talked to say that the evolved packet core (EPC) has been largely virtualized. Beyond that, NFV adoption has been slow, and NFV projects often fail to achieve their goals. But it’s still early.

SDN is often described as separating out the control plane from the data plane in the boxes that comprise a network. Kumar Mehta, Founder and Chief Digital Officer at Versa Networks, also sees value in separating out the analytics plane. Versa’s software platform uses analytics to provide better user experiences, more efficient use of network resources, and security. Using analytics and artificial intelligence, features such as forward error correction and packet replication can be activated automatically, and traffic can be assigned to the predicted best paths or circuits.

Mehta says that NFV/SDN growing pains are inevitable. For instance, virtualization prevents vendor lock-in, but when there are multiple vendors and a problem appears, vendors tend to point fingers. The industry is working on ways to prevent finger-pointing, and Mehta believes it will become less common as NFV/SDN matures.

Blue Planet, a division of Ciena, sees 5G as a major opportunity for NFV/SDN. While 4G networks were built on a traditional best-effort basis, 5G networks will be more flexible and dynamic—they will be capable of being reconfigured and optimized on-the-fly. They will also be more automated, requiring less manual effort to provision resources and make the most efficient use of bandwidth. It will take time to implement NFV/SDN, requiring personnel with new skills and a new operator culture.

Blue Planet’s products include MDSO (Multidomain Service Orchestration for multi-vendor networks), Blue Planet MCP (Manage, Control and Plan for Ciena networks), and Blue Planet Analytics.

F5 Networks describes itself as delivering “cloud and security solutions that enable organizations to embrace the application infrastructure they choose without sacrificing speed and control.” The company sees operators choosing between two roads to NFV/SDN: wholesale migration or incremental (project-based) change. Most operators are choosing the incremental approach. AT&T is an exception with the bold vision outlined in its Domain 2.0 initiative.

F5 focuses on making sure that application services such as firewall, video optimization, and parental controls are always available. To that end James Thomson, Solution Architect, sees Tier 1 mobile operators increasing the number of their data center locations by a factor of 10. That will require the ability to spin up new resources in minutes or hours—the old ways took months because they were too labor-intensive.

Legacy vendors are also getting on the NFV/SDN bandwagon. Swedish telecom giant Ericsson today describes itself as a provider of “Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to service providers.” Ericsson points out that 5G will serve a wider range of applications, requiring more flexible networks with more local resources. In some cases, edge logic will be deployed in small cells or even on the customer’s premises. Ericsson is a big proponent of the Internet of Things, but recognizes that sending data to the cloud doesn’t always make sense. Autonomous vehicles can’t wait for decisions from remote sites. Enterprise customers may rent space on virtual machines and install their own software—rather than deploying large amounts of hardware as in the past.

While the goal is to virtualize as much of the network as possible, some elements (such as antennas) can’t be virtualized, while in other cases virtualization is possible but hardware solutions remain more efficient.

Since 2014, Ericsson has amassed 100 customers for its virtual evolved packet core (vEPC). Operator customers include Softbank, Swisscom, Telstra and Vodafone. Some of the first projects focused on voice over LTE (VoLTE) and Wi-Fi calling.

As described in its visionary Domain 2.0 white paper, AT&T sees the need for a new architecture inspired by cloud technologies enabling new business models, greater customer value, and a larger and more diverse choice of suppliers.

Chris Rice, Senior VP of AT&T Labs, believes that going forward operators will benefit from a new ecosystem, an open source approach to network solutions, and a devops culture. AT&T’s goal is to implement NFV/SDN in 75 percent of its network by year 2020. In Rice’s opinion, the problem with the incremental approach is that it’s too easy to lose sight of the larger goals.

Rice is also bullish on the role of AI in enabling network automation. Because AI is still evolving, it is currently best implemented in an “open loop” configuration, providing recommendations to network personnel. As AI becomes more reliable, operators will migrate to a “closed loop” model in which actions are taken automatically.

When change is the only constant

NFV and SDN are inevitable developments. While there will be much turbulence ahead for early adopters, and some proprietary solutions will always be with us, once NFV and SDN reach critical mass the advantages will be overwhelming. At the rate that information is being generated, collected and mined, the network industry will have no choice but to go to a more flexible and scalable approach.

This post is based on commentary by Ira Brodsky that first appeared at Computerworld. Brodsky is a Senior Analyst with Datacomm Research and is the author of five books about technology. Brodsky focuses on mobile solutions for payments, retail automation, and health care.

Digital transformation and 5G product development

Most enterprises see digital transformation in terms of customer experiences and business models. Digital is also quietly changing the way products are developed.

Most of what you read about digital transformation focuses on customer experiences, business model agility, and the effect that all of this has on enterprises — particularly IT departments.

Less widely recognized is the fact that digital technology is revolutionizing product development and management. Makers of smart products are using digital tools to speed prototype development, facilitate manufacturing and product testing, and enhance life-cycle management.

Products are generally becoming smarter. We now have smart TVs, smart speakers, smart refrigerators, and even smart sneakers. The most ordinary products can be made “smart” by adding Bluetooth beacons, RF ID tags or QR codes that provide information or links to webpages.

We are also surrounded by increasingly complex, high-performance products. Today’s popular smartphones have more processing power and memory than supercomputers that sold for millions of dollars each in the 1980s. The widespread availability of such sophisticated products is made possible by semiconductor technology — with help from Moore’s law. Once the solution to a complex problem has been developed, it can be miniaturized, embedded in silicon, and mass-produced.

In other words, some products are becoming so smart that manufacturing them is the easy part. It’s developing them in timely fashion, testing them thoroughly, and supporting them over their life cycle that have become bigger challenges.

5G wireless products are a prime example. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) envisions 5G technical standards enabling three new markets. Peak speeds in excess of 10 Gbps will create opportunities for enhanced mobile broadband products and services. Support for more than one million connections per square kilometer will allow IoT devices to be deployed on a massive scale. And latency under 1 millisecond will permit 5G wireless to serve demanding applications such as autonomous vehicles.

5G wireless is also shaping up to serve a market that was not envisioned by the ITU. Millimeter wave spectrum, small cells, and higher spectral efficiency will enable 5G networks to leapfrog cable networks in capacity — making it practical for wireless operators to provide fixed broadband service to small businesses and homes. (More robust broadband communication could also boost remote team collaboration; I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.)

Developing products at this early stage in 5G’s evolution is problematic. It’s as if everyone woke up at the same time and realized that 5G is coming and is going to be important. The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), which oversees much of the development of 5G technical standards, has put Phase 1 standards on a fast track with mid-2018 as the target completion date. However, companies hoping to be first-to-market have already begun developing products. Companies focusing on the fixed broadband market are even preparing to go to market with pre-standard products.

The best way to speed the development of a complex, high-performance product is to build a working prototype out of modules using tools designed for creating and assembling such modules. Duncan Hudson, Chief Platform Officer at National Instruments, likens this to the use of hardware and software Legos.

For instance, National Instrument’s LabView system allows developers to manipulate graphical representations of software code. Field programmable gate arrays are used to create and assemble digital hardware blocks. (Major FPGA suppliers include Xilinx, Intel, Lattice Semiconductor and Microsemi.) This modular approach is currently being used to speed the development of 5G base stations with up to 128 antennas, millimeter wave radios, and products requiring cellular/Wi-Fi coexistence.

British mathematician I.J. Good once suggested that eventually only very smart machines will be able develop smarter machines — humans won’t be able to keep up. I think he was wrong. Digital technology makes product development easier by enabling virtualization and even nested virtualization. For instance, you don’t need to know how to develop a more powerful microprocessor in order to design a more powerful computer. But you do need teams of developers working at different levels.

5G wireless is just one area in which digital technology has begun to transform product development. The same thing is happening in the defense, automotive, and energy industries — just to name a few. Over time, digital technology will transform product (and also service) development in all industries.

This post is based on commentary by Ira Brodsky that first appeared at Computerworld. Brodsky is a Senior Analyst with Datacomm Research and is the author of five books about technology. Brodsky focuses on mobile solutions for payments, retail automation, and health care.

Which 5G path leads to robust growth for mobile operators?

The following was originally published on September 5, 2017 as an analyst angle piece at RCR Wireless News:

Mobile operators have reached a critical juncture. According to CTIA – The Wireless Association, there are 396 million devices connected to mobile networks in the U.S. Nearly everyone has mobile phones (about 80% smartphones), the percentage of wireless-only households has surpassed 50%, and mobile operators are adding more “things” (such as tablets, cars, and machines) to their networks.

If mobile operators expect another decade of vigorous growth, then they must look beyond phones. They must also choose carefully: The wrong decision could lead to stagnation and decline.

The two biggest growth opportunities are the internet of Things (IoT) and internet and TV to the home.

Beware the internet of things hype. I first wrote about this in 2004. That year, industry analysts predicted that tens of billions of things would be connected to the internet within five years. It didn’t happen. More than a dozen years later, they are still saying that tens of billions of things will be connected to the internet in five years.

Don’t get me wrong. The internet of Things is a huge opportunity. Actually, IoT is many opportunities – and that is part of the problem. There are dozens of market segments, each developing at its own pace. Some are best served by wide area networks, but many are best served by local area networks. And while many families are willing to add their automobiles to shared data plans, few enterprises are going to spend $30 per month on individual sensors.

The FCC’s 2016 Wireless Competition Report estimates that mobile operators in the U.S. are adding about 2 million IoT devices to their networks every quarter. Even if we assume that operators worldwide are adding 20 million IoT devices to their networks every quarter, it will take ten years just to reach one billion connected devices. Until the rate at which IoT devices are added accelerates, mobile operators can’t expect much revenue growth from the internet of things.

What about the other major opportunity: broadband services to the home? Up until now, it hasn’t been practical for mobile operators to compete with cable, wireline, and satellite operators providing TV and internet services to the home. The average home consumes nearly 200 gigabytes of internet data per month, and an even larger quantity of high-definition TV. That’s way more than the average mobile user consumes.

Though 4G networks boast speeds up to 1 Gbps, they don’t have the capacity to provide internet and TV services to homes. The “unlimited” video plans that mobile operators tout really aren’t unlimited. Once the subscriber consumes about 20 gigabytes for the month, their download speed is reduced. And this despite the fact that it takes less data to fill the smaller screens on smartphones and tablets.

5G wireless could be a giant step forward. According to a report by Rysavy Research, by using millimeter wave spectrum, small cells, and higher spectral efficiency, mobile networks will leapfrog cable networks, delivering up to 100 times greater capacity. Factor in other wireless benefits and you have a very different competitive environment. While cable operators must build networks that run past each home they wish to serve, wireless operators just need to get within radio range – about 200 meters. Wireless operators can bundle mobile and home broadband services. Keep in mind that the average household spends over $100 per month for internet and TV.

The breakthrough is the use of expansive millimeter wave spectrum. At the start of 2016, there was a total of about 750 megahertz of spectrum available to mobile phone operators in the U.S. Then last summer the FCC allocated 3.85 gigahertz of spectrum in the 20 and 30 GHz bands for 5G. That’s a 500% increase in spectrum.

Why wasn’t millimeter wave spectrum exploited earlier? Signals at such high frequencies don’t travel as far and are blocked by physical objects. However, antennas at those frequencies are also smaller, so it’s practical to build sophisticated antenna arrays that overcome the propagation challenges by creating steerable beams. Field trials by AT&T and Verizon suggest that millimeter wave coverage is good provided that operators employ closely-spaced cells. (Perhaps that’s why AT&T and Verizon have spent $billions acquiring millimeter wave spectrum rights.)

Using 5G to provide internet and TV to the home involves a number of challenges. Local governments must approve small cell siting requests in a timely manner. Millimeter wave base station equipment must be made smaller and more power efficient. Customer equipment must be developed that the average homeowner can self-install. And it will take years and tens of billions of dollars to deploy hundreds of thousands of small cells.

Cable operators say there is no need to panic. Cable has its own upgrade paths, such as extending fiber deeper into networks and even using millimeter wave radio to connect to homes. Still, cable operators could find mobile operators are the most formidable competitors they have ever encountered.

5G network slicing ensures that mobile operators can pursue both the internet of things and broadband to the home. However, broadband is the more lucrative, immediate, and certain opportunity. Pursuing it will be very expensive, but mobile operators have everything riding on this bet.

Ira Brodsky is Senior Industry Analyst at Datacomm Research.


Why 5G will be a game changer

Originally published by FierceWireless at:

Industry Voices—Rysavy: Why 5G will be a game changer

As impressive as the improvements have been with each new generation of cellular technology, the step from 4G to 5G will be more profound than any before and by the end of the next decade will reshape the broadband landscape. Specifically, 5G networks using mmWave frequencies will leapfrog over the capabilities of today’s hybrid fiber coaxial networks. As analyzed and quantified in a report I recently completed with Datacomm Research, “Broadband Disruption: How 5G Will Reshape the Competitive Landscape,” three technical innovations are converging to deliver unprecedented performance.

First and foremost, 5G will gain access to vast amounts of new spectrum. The first in a series of auctions in the United States targeted for 5G will allocate 3.85 GHz of licensed spectrum. Compared to today’s 750 MHz of licensed spectrum, this is a gigantic 500% increase. Second, small but powerful base station antenna arrays using massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) will be able to focus the radio signals into narrow beams, not only extending the range of the signals, but also by permitting multiple simultaneous beams, increasing spectral efficiency. Third, a small-cell architecture, inherent to the shorter range of mmWave signals, will further increase capacity by reducing the coverage area of each cell and, consequently, the number of users sharing the same spectrum. Our analysis shows that together, these innovations will result in almost three times the annual gain in wireless network capacity over the next 10 years compared to the average annual gain over the past two decades.

The resulting networks will prove formidable, crossing the chasm holding back today’s 4G LTE wireless networks: namely, the inability for most consumers to cut both the television cord and the broadband cord. 4G may have the throughput to support high-definition streaming, but such streaming can consume 1 Gbyte per hour, quickly bumping into the constraints of today’s unlimited plans, which throttle traffic after about 20 Gbytes. In contrast, 5G in dense deployments will not only have the capacity to handle today’s TV viewing on large screens, but will also scale to support ultrahigh-definition and even greater data-consuming applications such as virtual reality.

Such dense deployments will require hundreds of thousands of small cells nationwide. Verizon, for example, stated that it might eventually need 8,000 to 10,000 small cells in Boston alone. The small cells will also need much denser fiber networks than currently exist, but here again, technology advances will help. For example, 3GPP is studying a 5G capability called Integrated Access and Backhaul, with which a cell can use a 5G radio for backhaul, even relaying traffic through other sites. Thus, only a subset of sites will need a fiber connection. Siting for small cells may also become easier, as the FCC and state governments are both acting to modernize rules. Combined with other innovations, such as support for mission-critical applications, low-power IoT, and distributed computing that extends to the network edge, 5G will transform multiple industries.

A case in point is fixed wireless access, one of the first major use cases. Verizon is trialing prestandard 5G in 11 cities this year. Questions remain about the exact cell density needed and the precise effects of different residential layouts and landscapes on mmWave signals, but all of these challenges appear solvable, thrusting mobile operators and fixed-broadband providers such as cable companies into uncharted competitive territory. Cable operators have their own road map for increasing capability, as our report quantifies, such as increasing cable’s spectral bandwidth, but this requires reducing the length of coaxial cables and making large new investments to extend fiber closer to homes. Cable companies could themselves use mmWave in some scenarios, explaining Charter’s 5G research efforts. Just as long-distance telephony, once a thriving business separate from local telephone service, was obliterated by technology advances, 5G is likely to make the current separation of broadband into fixed and mobile services obsolete.

Despite requiring investments that could run into hundreds of billions of dollars, these new, ultradense networks, fueled by small cells and capacious millimeter wave spectrum, will be the railroads of the 21st century. They will unleash innovation of the likes that we can only begin to imagine. Get ready. The entire communications landscape is about to change.

Peter Rysavy, president of Rysavy Research, has been analyzing and reporting on wireless technologies for more than 20 years. See In addition, he will be moderating Massive Broadband Network Densification—Unleashing the Opportunities of 5G.


Take another look at wireless charging

The market for delivering power wirelessly over short distances is potentially huge.

The most obvious application is wirelessly charging smartphones. We depend on our smartphones to work all day long. The need to charge them when their batteries are low is a fact of life, but connecting a wired charger is not always convenient or even possible. There are wireless charging pads for the home and office, and wireless charging docks for automobiles, and we are just starting to see wireless charging spots in coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, and airports.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t even have to think about charging our mobile devices. Infrastructure embedded in the environment would automatically detect our devices, check their battery status, and charge them as needed. This concept is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Such infrastructure has been developed and is starting to be deployed. However, there still isn’t universal support for wireless charging in smartphones, laptops, and wearables.

(There is also another solution that doesn’t require a power outlet. A portable cell phone charger, such as the Flux, can fast-charge a smartphone. However, it’s an additional item to carry around and must also be recharged.)

Vertical and horizontal markets

How might wireless charging achieve broader acceptance? New technology solutions often succeed first in vertical markets. Business customers are willing to invest heavily in new technology if it solves a major problem or gives them a competitive advantage. That gives developers time to refine their solutions and squeeze out costs.

For instance, mobile robots are being used to automate warehouses and drones are being used to conduct dangerous inspections. However, to operate for long periods, robots and drones must periodically recharge their batteries. Wireless technology avoids the need for a physical connection so that recharging can be performed autonomously.

The use of IoT devices in factories presents an exciting opportunity. It’s not practical to run wires to hundreds of sensors scattered around a factory–particularly when many are attached to moving assemblies. Nor is it advisable to equip sensors exposed to heat or vibration with batteries. Seattle-based Ossia has developed wireless technology for powering sensors at a distance.

Pittsburgh-based Powercast has developed wireless power solutions for particularly challenging applications. For instance, large-scale cooking operations need to determine when meat has reached the desired internal temperature without opening the ovens prematurely and letting heat escape. Temperature sensors inserted into the meat can be queried wirelessly. Similarly, perishable drugs must be kept cool during shipment. Wireless power can be used to activate and read a temperature sensor inside the box without breaking the insulation and letting in warm air.

Office hoteling and business travel are two major horizontal markets for wireless charging. An employee who spends most of his or her time in the field can reserve an office and use wireless to access a desktop display, the local area network, and a charging pad. Likewise, business travelers will no longer need to carry chargers and power cables when wireless charging becomes a standard amenity at coffee shops, airports, and hotels. Powermat has begun deploying wireless charging infrastructure and to date has hundreds of locations in 11 states across the U.S.

Different flavors of wireless power

In theory, there are several technologies for delivering power wirelessly. However, most of the business activity is focused on two technologies: magnetic induction and radio waves.

Inductive wireless charging is already in wide use. The transmitter’s coil generates a magnetic field that induces a current in the nearby receiver’s coil. Electric toothbrushes use inductive charging: You can only place the toothbrush on the stand one way, and it ensures the two coils are right next to each. Powermat, the company that has begun deploying wireless charging infrastructure across the U.S., uses inductive wireless charging.

It would be nice to have a little more spatial freedom for wireless charging. This would permit coffee shops and restaurants to install wireless charging transmitters on the undersides of tables where they would be out of the way. A variant of inductive technology called “resonant” allows wireless charging over modestly greater distances (from about one inch to more than a foot away). However, there are tradeoffs: as the distance increases, the efficiency of the power transfer decreases and there is greater risk of producing electromagnetic interference. Witricity, a leading proponent of resonant wireless charging, points out that the technique is highly scalable and can be used in applications as diverse as smartphones, medical implants, mobile robots, and even electric automobiles.

The other major wireless charging technology uses radio waves and is called “RF” (radio frequency). RF offers the most spatial freedom, but it also poses challenges. Radio signals tend to fan out from the transmitting antenna, so a device with a small receiving antenna is likely to capture only a fraction of the power. There are ways to steer the radio waves, but care must be taken not to expose people to concentrated beams.

Energous is a proponent of RF wireless charging for consumers. The firm is pursuing a phased strategy that it says will ultimately enable charging mobile devices up to 15 feet away. The firm’s WattUp technology works with Bluetooth-enabled devices, using Bluetooth to check the device’s battery status and pinpoint its location. RF is a good solution for wearables, because RF receivers can be made small enough to fit into the smallest devices, such as hearing aids that are worn in the ear. Ironically, the wearable must be placed right next to the RF transmitter–much like inductive charging.

Ossia and Powercast use RF technology for both wireless charging and to power devices at a distance. Ossia has developed solutions for wirelessly charging Bluetooth-enabled devices and wirelessly powering battery-free devices such as digital price tags in retail stores and sensors in factories. Powercast uses its RF energy-harvesting technology to power sensors connected to RFID tags as well as to trickle charge battery-powered devices.

Wireless power industry associations

There are two industry groups developing standards and promoting the use of wireless charging/power. Several leading vendors are members of both.

The Wireless Power Consortium promotes the Qi (pronounced “chee”) standard for wirelessly charging smartphones. The WPC reports that there are more than 200 million Qi phones and chargers in use today. There are also 66 car models from 16 car manufacturers that feature factory-installed Qi chargers. The Qi standard includes both inductive and resonant options (though the latter extends range only about one-and-one-half inches). Members of the WPC include Apple, Dell, HTC, Huawei, iRobot, LG Electronics, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony, and Verizon Wireless.

The other major industry group is the AirFuel Alliance. In addition to inductive and resonant technology, the AirFuel Alliance supports RF, ultrasound, and laser technologies. The AirFuel Alliance was created through the merger of the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) and the Power Matters Alliance (PMA). Members include Dell, HTC, Huawei, Intel, Lenovo, LG Electronics, Motorola Mobility, NTT DoCoMo, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Starbucks.

Inventor Nicola Tesla dreamt of wirelessly delivering large quantities of electric power over long distances. We can now see there is an even bigger opportunity for delivering small amounts of electric power over short distances. Five years from now we may shake our heads when we remember how people used to carry around their own battery chargers.

This post is based on commentary by Ira Brodsky that first appeared at Computerworld. Brodsky is a Senior Analyst with Datacomm Research and is the author of five books about technology. Brodsky focuses on mobile solutions for payments, retail automation, and health care.