WiFi RF Engineering? (not an April’s Fools question)

After the tech bubble burst in 2001, I joined the Lucent Wireless Networks organization as the systems architect and engineering director responsible for 3G data applications. I had a really great group of engineers fighting hard to create the wireless world we actually have today – everything mobile data. And yes, I do mean fighting; because at that time the core power base within the organization was made up of RF engineers, those who had invented the first cellular networks during the 1980s (and earlier), plus their apprentices. They were all *real* engineers, with a deep understanding of the theory, math, technologies and challenges in designing and building cellular wireless network equipment. In meetings they were always devolving into discussions of link budgets, dB, hertz, and erlangs. I was mostly a software and systems engineer; yes, with a strong background in outside plant and voice (aka POTS) networks, but I was a foreigner in their domain, for sure. I suspect a few of them would intentionally take conversations into the deep technical details to a) impress their boss, b) let the one VP, who was an RF engineer himself, take the lead in the conversation, and c) avoid any discussion of the economics or business sensibility of an idea. Well, I learned fast that to thrive in that organization I needed to speak, or at least understand, RF engineer-ese.

In this time frame, Wi-Fi was just getting serious standardization and the PCIMCIA card was its most common form factor; the same form factor as the first 3G data devices. Perhaps that was the cause of the anti-Wi-Fi bias that developed in those RF engineers. Or maybe it was due to only being for short range data transport, and *not at all* related to the cellular business of voice service. But more likely, I suspect, it is Wi-Fi’s use of unlicensed spectrum (after all, you can’t calculate performance when there are multiple indeterminate variables in the RF link budget). So what did naïve Jack do? I became an advocate for fixed mobile convergence and “dual-mode voice service” over Wi-Fi and cellular data, using IMS as the enabling technology… And not long thereafter I moved on to Lucent’s professional services organization.

I smile a lot now, ten years later, with all mobile data devices having built-in Wi-Fi, the industry producing integrated Wi-Fi picocells and implementing of mobile data offload onto Wi-Fi. AT&T and Verizon each have many 10,000s of public Wi-Fi access points in operation for their subscribers’ use. The FCC is adding more free unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi to use. And I spent last year working with several of the major US cable operators on their massive outdoor Wi-Fi network RF designs and deployments. Of course, IMS technology is still struggling in wireless networks and the few dual mode services that have commercially launched don’t use IMS. But at least three of the best engineers that worked for me went on to found their own, or to work at, small cell and/or Wi-Fi startup companies (Meru, Ubiquisys, Airvana). They and many others have made it happen, not me. No regrets here.

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