Investing in Wireless Standards, or 802.11ad – Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know?

Investing in a new wireless standard can be an expensive experiment. The investment can be vast, as I’ve described in a previous article on the cost of wireless standards. It’s not unusual for the combined cost of writing and bringing a standard to market to run into billions of dollars. When a standard loses out to a competing one, it’s a heavy loss both for the VCs who have invested in it as well as the companies who have worked on it. The problem is that there’s not been a good way of determining in advance which standards will succeed and which will fail.

Up until this point, the only real yardstick has been the Intel test. That’s the principal that if Intel invests heavily in a wireless standard (think HomeRF, WiMedia or WiMax), then the standard will fail spectacularly. Conversely, if Intel withdraws its development effort from a wireless standard, as they did in the early days of Bluetooth back in 2002, then the standard will be a roaring success. The Intel test isn’t a perfect one – it fails to predict the acceptance of Wi-Fi, but with a track record of four predictions out of five, it’s a lot better than just flipping a coin.

What the industry needs is a new test. I’m going to suggest the Byron test. It’s a more literary approach, suited to the alphabet soup of the 802.11 family of wireless standards and inspired by the popular description of the romantic poet as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

The genesis for the test was the realisation that in that phrase – “mad, bad and dangerous to know” the suffix “ad” appears in words which society generally considers to be negative or undesirable traits. Which set me wondering whether there are trends in suffixes which might indicate something noxious which should be avoided. That something in this case being the 60GHz 802.11ad standard. which is being promoted as the next generation bridge between home networks and cellular networks. 802.11ad is potentially important as it extends the capacity of the existing 802.11 offerings that currently inhabit the unlicensed 2.4GHz and 5.1GHz bands to 60GHz, providing new data capacity. That’s something cellular operators desperately need, as smartphone technology has moved us from the relatively low spectral capacity requirements needed to support verbal diarrhoea to an epidemic of social media driven data obesity. In its early outings 802.11ad will predominantly be used for personal connectivity in the office and home, but it could be a suitable partner for decreasingly smaller cells, helping operators to offload more of their data traffic.

It’s not the only solution around. The licensed spectrum industry is promoting LTE-Advanced and there are a number of 802.11 alphabet soup contenders, but 802.11ad is Intel’s favourite. The fact that Intel is investing heavily in 802.11ad ought to get the wireless alarm bells ringing. However good the technology, they do seem to have a Midas touch wherever wireless is concerned, particularly when it touches the cellular or smartphone markets. So let’s apply the Byron test.

How do other “ad” words fare?  We’ve already got bad, and moving onto cad seems to be continuing in the same vein. Whilst a few engineers might argue for the benefits of its uppercase variant, the majority of the english speaking world will recognise the word as a worthless and profligate person. Dad does seem to disprove the case for the Byron test, but it’s a singular outlier, rapidly followed by fad, which seems an apt description for the regularly abandoned failures in the wireless standards world. Nor does gad inspire, as companies’ attention spans flit from one new standard to another. Had gives us the past tense to place a  failed standard in its proper context, whilst lad hints at the Jack the Lads of technical marketing, out to make a quick buck from their next bottle of wireless snake oil.

Mad we’ve met before and pad is ambiguous – possibly a soft footed intruder or alternatively mere corroborative detail, adding artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing standard proposal. Sad sums up the investors in each of these forlorn ventures – all a tad sorry that they fell for the story, and thinking of the wads of money they lost.

Those of a religious persuasion might attempt to argue the redeeming merit of AD. However, Anno Domini could be taken as everything that went wrong after the End of Days, bringing us the dark ages, the Spanish Inquisition and most of the rest of the history of human conflict. Nor have other religious fundamentalists used it any more kindly with their more recent promotion of Jihad.

All in all, I’m not sure there’s a more disastrous suffix in the English language than “ad”. Of course, Intel might argue that they’ve renamed the standard WiGig. They might even apply the Byron test to point out how big it’s going to be. Against which others might retort they’re leading us a merry jig whilst digging another wireless hole for themselves. Some consider it a pig of a standard and don’t care a fig for it. Like a wig – it’s just covering up a bald pate – renaming it is just an attempt to rig the market.

Whilst it might be fun, the Byron test is probably no better or worse than the Intel test, or any other we have. It is one of the failings of the market that we waste so much time and money on competing standards, which, bizarrely, are often promoted and paid for by the same companies and investors. There is too little cross fertilisation in these efforts and still too many cases of vested interest pushing non-optimum technologies, often at a political rather than an engineering level. All I can conclude is that we probably get the wireless standards we deserve. Unfortunately we end up getting them late and paying too much for their development.

All I can hope is that I’ve added a few moments of whimsy to the process. For a far better play on the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” quote, can I recommend Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl as further reading, which is what inspired this flight of fancy. It’s excellent for anyone over the age of eight who’s retained a sense of the ridiculous. And it’s a much more entertaining read than any wireless standard.