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What Does Wireless Mean in 2020?

This article discusses various "wireless" technologies that inhabit unlicensed spectrum, licensed spectrum and "lightly licensed" spectrum, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, CBRS and RFID.

August 11, 2020 5 minute read

We commonly refer to devices that communicate with one another over radio waves as being wireless devices or communicating wirelessly. But what do we mean when we talk about something being a "wireless" communication?

Defining radio waves

Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum longer than infrared light. Radio waves have frequencies as high as 300 gigahertz (GHz) to as low as 30 hertz (Hz). Radio waves are generated artificially by transmitters and received by radio receivers, using antennas. Radio waves are very widely used in modern technology for fixed and mobile radio communication, broadcasting, radar and radio navigation systems, communications satellites, wireless computer networks and many other applications.

We will briefly touch on a few different types of wireless communication technologies, outlining the general frequencies the technology operates within. There are variations in spectrum use from country to country. This article is not intended to be all encompassing, but to serve as a starting point into discussing the realm of wireless communication methods.

An excellent graphic representation of the different wireless frequency allocations in use in the United States today can be found on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration website.

Types of wireless technologies

We will address the following wireless technologies in alphabetical order, as many of these technologies operate in several different frequency ranges, sometimes even overlapping one another and competing for the same spectrum air space.

  • Bluetooth
  • CBRS
  • Cellular
  • RFID
  • Satellite
  • Wi-Fi
  • Zigbee
  • Z-Wave

Bluetooth

Bluetooth is a short distance wireless technology standard commonly used as a communication mechanism between personal peripheral devices such as computer keyboards, phone headsets, cordless computer mice, audio communication from a smart device to a car head unit or home audio Bluetooth receiver. Bluetooth operates in the 2.4GHz unlicensed spectrum. 

The early forms of Bluetooth communication devices did not effectively utilize the 2.4GHz spectrum and were often a cause of network communication issues when used in the vicinity of a 2.4GHz wireless network. Today’s Bluetooth devices make much better use of the available spectrum for pairing and sending data and are no longer a source of disruption to 2.4GH wireless networks.

CBRS

Consumer Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is a 150 MHz wide broadcast band of the 3.5GHz spectrum, which is now starting to be used commercially by U.S. cellular carriers to roll out 5G services without having to acquire spectrum licenses.

Cellular

The term cellular communications could refer to anything from GSM, UTMS, CDMA, 2G, 3G, 4G, LTE or 5G. Cellular communications utilized licensed spectrum to enable transmission and reception of signals between cellular-compatible mobile devices an the cellular network. The frequencies used for cellular communications range from 450MHz (LTE) all the way up to 39000MHz (5G).

RFID

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects. An RFID tag is a tiny radio receiver and transmitter. When an RFID tag is triggered by a nearby RFID reader device, the tag transmits stored digital data (usually an inventory number or other data) back to the RFID reader. 

Inventory data can be collected quicker and easier and with less user error by using RFID tags. RFID communication frequencies vary from 120kHz to 10GHz, for low frequency RFID and ultra wide band RFID respectively.

Satellite

Communications satellites are used for television, telephone, radio, Internet and military applications to relay and amplify radio telecommunications signals between source transmitters and receivers at different locations on Earth. High frequency radio waves used for telecommunications travel by line of sight and are obstructed by the curvature of the Earth. 

Satellites relay the signals around the Earth and enable communication between widely separated geographical locations. In order to avoid signal interference, international organizations have regulations to define which bands of the spectrum different organizations are allowed to use.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is the communication technology we use when we work from a laptop at home or at work. It is a communication method based on the IEEE 802.11 standard which enables network or Internet connectivity through a wireless access point. Wi-Fi communication operates in the unlicensed 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum. 

Wi-Fi communication technology can be used indoors or outdoors as mesh, point-to-point or point-to-multipoint configurations. Within Wi-Fi there are many non-overlapping communication channels in the 2.4 and 5GH spectrum, and the number and frequency used depends on the local regulations from country to country.

Zigbee

Zigbee is a communication method used by small, low-power digital radios for home automation, medical device data collection and other low-power, low-bandwidth needs. This communication method requires close proximity to the transmitter and receiver, as the devices utilizing this technology are very low-power devices but require very little bandwidth to send and receive data. Zigbee operates in the unlicensed 2.4GHz spectrum.

Z-Wave

Z-Wave is a wireless standard for intelligent building networks. It utilizes low-energy radio waves to communicate between appliances, lighting controls, security systems, thermostats, windows, locks, water sensors and other multipurpose sensors. 

The communication network requires the use of a Z-Wave gateway or central control device which connects the multiple sensors to the internet to enable management via an application on a smart phone, tablet or computer. Z-Wave uses the unlicensed industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) band, and the specific frequency used varies from country to country depending on local regulations.

Move foward with wireless

As you can see “wireless” is a loaded term in 2020. It can refer to many different types of radio communication services. 

To learn more about this technology and how WWT can help your organization, please feel free to reach out directly and get connected with our experts.

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