Peering Into the Crystal Ball: The Future of Wireless Technologies for ICT Professionals

View the online magazine version here [ICT Today, September/October Issue]



he CTI industry is entering a new era of incredible growth in wireless demands, number of users and devices, access technologies. Designers, installers and advisors must accommodate all of these factors as help our clients plan new building structures. Key to providing good guidance is a thorough understanding of wireless technologies and where we are going. Developing an understanding of these trends is particularly important now because:

  • Wireless technologies can provide the needed bandwidth for almost all business and personal applications. No longer does a user require a dedicated category or fiber cable to their computing device. In fact, very few of today’s laptops and tablets come with an RJ-45 port.
  • User demand for mobility has created a “new normal” where everyone uses their cellular device(s) everywhere, for almost anything, all the time. According to CTIA, heavy users now spend 225 minutes per day on their phone.
  • New demands for device-to-device connectivity (much of which is embodied in the Internet of Things or IoT) will drive future wireless requirements. Machina Research estimates there will be 18 billion mobile-to-mobile connections by 2022.
  • Moore’s Law (which states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles every two years) continues unabated, driving down the cost of computing systems and increasing their capability and relevance.


For ICT professionals, these factors must be taken into account, along with the reality that we live and work in buildings, and thus we should design and construct the ICT systems in these buildings with this in mind. Modern building designs follow Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) criteria which usually include shell and skin materials that are thermally efficient but that also block RF signal. Among other requirements, an RCDD® or engineer must figure out how to get the wireless signals in and out of the building.

They must also specify:

  • Media (cabling) used to transport wireless signal to antennas or access points (Aps)
  • Power and space requirements for wireless active network devices.
  • Density of users


There are three main classes of technologies that experts agree will be critical to the future of wireless. These classes consist of wireless personal area networks (WPAN), Wi-Fi and cellular. Not all of them are applicable for every building, every user, and every device, but they are all critically important.



WPAN (IEEE 802.15) covers those networks that will be needed for many of the devices in the IoT and is an excellent choice for areas inside buildings. WPAN devices are made up of sensors, chips, radios and long-life batteries. In many cases all of these components are combined into what is called a system on a chip (SoC). Sensors provide information for a wide range of inputs, including temperature, light, motion sensing, gas and particle detection, and other environmental factors.

With the majority of these devices, the amount of data captured and shared is small (think kilobytes, not megabytes). Thus, the wireless networks that enable them do not need to be high capacity. Picture an IoT device that monitors temperature in many areas of a factory that produces heat-sensitive widgets. The sensor might measure temperature every 15 minutes and sends that data to a controller. WPAN technologies like Bluetooth® LE (low energy) is ideal for this application, with a range of ˜50 meters (m [164 feet (ft)]) and low-data capacity.

Just as importantly, these sensors require very little power to send and receive the wireless signal; if engineers can continue to create systems powered by very small and very inexpensive (yet long-lived) batteries, the return on investment of these devices becomes compelling. In many cases they are supported by tiny coin cells or power supplies that can last five or more years. Designers are also striving to make them self-sustaining by means of ambient energy harvesting, in which the devices themselves derive their power from solar cells, kinetic energy or heat. Picture an IoT sensor in a factory placed on a motor that vibrates – no power supply is needed.

WPAN are generally mesh or peer-to-peer networks. They communicate directly with each other and do not require an infrastructure to support them, thus building designers do not really need to account for them in terms of cabling media or power. ZigBee™, for example, has a line-of-sight range of ˜10-20 m (33-66 ft). Z-Wave is a wireless protocol designed to operate between nodes up to ˜30 m (100 ft), with a capacity up to 40 kilobits. Many current and future applications inside buildings can be well served by these low-capacity, low-range,and low-power wireless networks.



Wi-Fi is the second class of network that is critical to our wireless future. Users have come to expect Wi-Fi in every building, regardless of type. Wi-Fi is also crucial because, unlike WPAN networks which are low-speed, future Wi-Fi promises optical fiber-like speeds. One of the next versions of Wi-Fi just around the corner is 802.11ad (also known as WiGig) which will operate in the 50-60 gigahertz (GHz) range and offer multi-gigabit throughput to each user device. Several challenges with 802.11ad today are that it may be limited to very short range (˜1-10 m [3-33 ft]), and this V-band frequency does not penetrate building structures very well. In addition, the capacity of the network will be increased using a technique called beamforming, in which arrays of antennas will be pointed or formed more directly from sender to receiver, as opposed to today’s omnidirectional antennas which distribute wireless signal in a circular or donut-shaped fashion.

Today designers plan for robust Wi-Fi by following either a honeycomb grid pattern (ISO/ IEC TR-27404) or a square grid (TIA TSB-162-A) in the building for placement of Aps and media to support them. In the future, RCDDs and network planners might have to account for a more dense design of Wi-Fi APs, as well as using optical fiber rather than category cable to accommodate higher capacity Wi-Fi technologies.


Licensed Spectrum

The third class of wireless network connectivity important for building designers is licensed spectrum owned and managed by cellular carriers. Cellular coverage is key, because it will serve users and devices inside and outside every building. We want to use our smartphones, and soon-to-be super-smart phones, anywhere we may go. The field of personal mobile digital assistants is growing to include wearables and medical monitoring devices. Additionally, other devices will require connectivity in the outside world; for example, the next 20 years will see the introduction of self-driving cars.

Future development of smart cities will drive the need for connectivity of systems and devices outside of building structures. Cellular technology will be critical to the enablement of such applications as monitoring of outside entities like electric grids and pipelines for water and energy. IoT devices will monitor and measure these systems, reducing waste, leakage, theft and component failure. There is tremendous potential gain in agriculture with the control and monitoring of crops, from the precise GPS-enabled automated planters which direct the exact optimal placement of every seed, to targeted application of herbicide and fertilizer based on unique soil conditions down the square meter. Most of these systems and equipment will need outside and inside connectivity that is best served by cellular networks.

5G is the next generation of cellular, and with a standard expected in 2021. Network operators and cell phone manufacturers are planning for systems that offer 10 to 100 times today’s data rates and five to 10 times reduced latency. Users will have fiber-like connectivity to their mobile devices, and reduced latency (in the range of 1 to 5 milliseconds [ms]) means that they will be able to interact with cellular devices in a manner that mimics the response times of the human nervous system (this has created the term “the tactile internet”). This will open a wide range of possibilities to enable virtual reality, gaming and training and simulation exercises.

Reduced latency means that device and system engineers will embed haptic (touch) interfaces in devices, some of which exist already in today’s phones. Users will be able to interact with their devices by tapping, pushing and gesturing, and receive a response from actuators that make it feel like the device is an extension of themselves. For example, today’s virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift have a latency of 15 to 20 ms, which is why many users get sick or disoriented from the experience.Reducing latency to the 1 ms level in tomorrow’s 5G network will drive new methods of immersive interactions with our machines.

Accommodating 5G indoors may be challenging for ICT building designers. The planned spectrum for 5G, like future Wi-Fi, will be the V-band of frequencies that range from 30 to 80 GHz, and these bands do not penetrate today’s modern building materials. Range of 5G antenna arrays may be limited to an extremely short distance of 9 m (30 ft). As with future Wi-Fi, for 5G we will likely use beamforming and create systems that employ massive multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) technology, which is being employed today to increase capacity of cellular systems. Massive MIMO simply means a much larger number of antennas in both handheld devices and system APs. In 2015, Samsung® created what they called their first 5G phone and integrated 32 antennas within the device. In the ceiling AP, massive means hundreds of antennas arranged in an array. The future may see APs that are as large as today’s light fixtures.

Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) will continue to be deployed to support tomorrow’s licensed spectrum and offer building owners complete 5G coverage from all operators, in every corner of the facility. Network designers will continue to accommodate base station or head-end equipment, but in the future there will be advances to drive down both the size and cost of head-end equipment, providing better economies of scale for customers. Future DAS will utilize more optical fiber-based media than today’s legacy coaxial cable systems, and likely have lower power requirements, driving down building operational costs and making systems more affordable.

DAS will also be needed in many cases to support tomorrow’s public safety radio requirements. There has been a proliferation of new building codes (IFC, NFPA) that mandate coverage for police, fire and first responder radio systems inside buildings in most areas of the US. Local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) will continue to enforce these rules, which they deem critical to life safety, as noted for example in the City of Marlborough MA fire code:

Research and investigations into Line of Duty Deaths (LODDs) and injuries to Fire, Police and EMS personnel show that the loss of reliable communications inside of such buildings is a contributing factor in death and injuries to emergency personnel.

Frequencies for public safety radios range from 150 megahertz (MHz) to 800 MHz today. Tomorrow we will have FirstNet, the nation’s first all-new interoperable radio system that allows all first responders to utilize the same network.  FirstNet is the last recommendation of the 9-11 Commission and is now finally being planned. FirstNet has bandwidth at 700 MHz allocated for operation, and there is strong interest to enable higher capacity, commercial LTE technologies for first responders in the future. LTE will allow for richer, multimedia applications, mobile video and other tools that will give first responders greater situational awareness and the capability to do their jobs better.



Lastly, light fidelity (Li-Fi) could be a significant game changer in the indoor wireless space. Li-Fi is wireless, but instead of using RF for data transmission, it uses light from blinking LEDs to provide high-speed communication. Applications would be limited to in-room systems, since light cannot penetrate walls, but the capacity could be enormous. The spectrum for visible light is 10,000 greater than the spectrum for radio frequency, and early tests have indicated significant data throughput.

The new normal of wireless everywhere is fast approaching. Cisco cites global mobile data growth at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 63 percent per year. The current licensed wireless spectrum is saturated, and it takes almost a decade for network operators to build and deploy on new bands from the time they are first identified, including the incentive auction of 600 MHz spectrum taking place in mid-2016. Users are demanding advice about how to incorporate future technologies in the structure being designing—the same structure that will not be occupied for another two or three years.



Given all that is known about greater demands for bandwidth for every type of connected device, the discussion centered on “when is optical fiber to the desk going to make sense?” comes to mind. Many in the ICT industry have debated this topic for the last 20 years, as various cycles of copper category cables have emerged. The question was prompted by the fact that the desk was where a user workstation or terminal was located. Perhaps the time has come for the same type of discussion, but instead of fiber-to-the-desk, it should center on fiber-to-the-user. Passive optical LAN (POL) might be one solution for some building or campus owners who want to leverage their infrastructure and be prepared for tomorrow.

Single mode fiber optic cable remains unlimited in terms of bandwidth. In the public network, carriers drive terabytes over hundreds of kilometers. Why not deliver an infrastructure for buildings that brings singlemode fiber as close to the user as possible? Imagine optical fiber from the facility entrance all the way to the edge, to allow for the very near future needs of LAN, cellular and Wi-Fi that will all have multi-gigabit network capacities.  The term “future proofing” is arguably one of the most overused terms by ICT professionals, but in reality an optical fiber-to-the-user or fiber-to-the-edge strategy may offer the longest useful life and lowest overall cost to a facility owner with long-term plans that include these wireless technologies.

Author: Mark Niehus, RCDD – Mark is a Director of Strategic Accounts for Connectivity Wireless Solutions. He has more than 25 years of ICT installation, project management, and sales and marketing experience. He has been an RCDD since 1997 and has a BA in English from the University of Iowa and an MBA from the University of Phoenix.