Fly by Wire

S. Schuchart

Summary Bullets:

• Wireless, especially 5G and WiFi6/6E, are so popular, the wired seems old-fashioned.

• Use the right technology for the application and don’t discount a wired connection.

We all swim in a world of radio frequencies delivering us music, television, data, the beloved voices of our friends and family, or the dreaded drone of telemarketers. Both 5G and WiFi 6E are the hot topic in enterprise wireless spaces, touted for everything from stadium connectivity to mass IoT. The sheer engineering of these technologies is awesome to behold, and the tricks radio-frequency engineers have learned over the years to coax more and more performance out of allocated spectrum is truly wonderous to behold. It’s reached the point where the very idea of using actual wiring – be it copper or optical fiber – seems quaintly old-fashioned outside of data center environments.

Nobody wants to put up a stop sign on the road of progress, but perhaps a practical tapping of the brakes would be in order. The pearl-clutching and sharp-gasping truth is that sometimes things are just better when wired. Wiring tends to have a much longer life as far as the technology cycle goes, is far less subject to outside interference, and many times can support bandwidth far in excess of what can be achieved on wireless, especially in dense environments. Wireless is amazing, but it’s far from perfect. In Ethernet, the technology was developed from rings and hubs, which were a shared environment where only one system could ‘speak’ at a time, which progressed to switched environments where everyone could ‘speak’ without waiting their turn. Radio is the ultimate in a shared environment. Only one device can ‘speak’ at a time. Incredible math, scheduling, and multiple frequencies help alleviate it, but at the end of the day, it’s a physics problem. To make it worse, popular co-existing technologies like 5G and WiFi 6/6E are not ‘aware’ of each other and can overlap at 5 GHz and 6 GHz spectrums. Being unaware of each other means that instead of coordinating when to ‘speak,’ they treat each other as radio interference. Is it a disaster? No, certainly not – both technologies are adept at handling radio interference – but it does make things less efficient and is only an example of some of the issues a shared environment comes with. Add in outside interference, faster product cycles, and coverage issues… well clearly everything isn’t peaches and cream.

All the talk has been about making everything wireless. For a lot of applications, wireless is indeed the way to go, offering the right characteristics for the problem in question. But sometimes, particularly in environments that are in a fixed location, the practical choice is going through the chore of laying down some physical cabling. Choose the right technology for your particular needs and don’t let the current emphasis on wireless lead to discounting a wired solution.

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