Letter from America: Connectivity by the numbers

When dealing with anything where there is a progression of technologies or features for a product, service or protocol it is essential to have some sort of designation system so that the user or consumer can tell if what they are buying or using is the “latest and greatest”. Or, with regard to software, there are occasionally times when one needs to roll back from a problematic current version, you need to know what the last viable version was.

Automobile manufacturers use a combination of the model year and the model or trim level version. Some products or technologies use names. For the most part, in our world it’s numbers.

We live in a morass of them. HDMI this or that. HDCP this or that. WiFi, USB, ATSC or DVB, MPEG, Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android. And, don’t forget the individual software revision versions of individual products. You get the picture; it can be hard to remember and keep track of them all.

As someone who makes their livelihood from all of these the task is always to first understand the technology yourself, and then be able to explain it to clients and prospects so that you will then be able to specify and install the right kit for their specific needs. There have been a few changes to two of the major connectivity systems in the past few weeks, so let’s concentrate on them today.

What we call WiFi are variants and extensions of the IEEE 802.11 standard. Over the years the technology for wireless communication and data transfer has progressed with improved throughput/speed, better security and the addition of more frequency bands. To make certain that users would be able to identify level of standard for a given product, a system was developed to provide a somewhat logical progression of designations. 

At first, there was actually an 802.11 standard with no suffix. However, it was quite slow and never garnered much in the way of consumer traction. Thus, the first popular consumer WiFi standard was 802.11b. Yes, as you will recall, there is also an “a” standard. It was developed at the same time as “b”, but for a variety of reasons came out a bit later and was mostly taken up in enterprise applications.

Next up, with an increase in speed was 802.11g. Sorry, but there were no WiFi standards “c, d, e, or f”. Confusing? You are beginning to get the picture. 

Logic would tell you that the next standard would be “802.11h”, but in fact we jumped from “g” to “n”. The jump was worth it, as the speed of “n” could be almost six times that of “g”. 

Numerical progression was clearly lost with the introduction of 801.11ac. The first WiFi to break the gigabit speed limit (when using the 5Ghz frequency band), it is the most frequently used WiFi system recently deployed systems. 

Most recently, the latest standard jumped through the alphabet all the way to 801.11ax. Products with “ax” are now available, and while the speed is incredibly fast and meant to meet the data-hungry needs of applications such as streaming 4K video, high speed transfer of very large data files with multiple system users, “ax” products are still on the pricey side of some budgets.

Add to this mix the numerous other standard extensions that were not popular with, or even meant for, residential, SMB or most enterprise applications and the waters become even muddier. Are you confused? Imagine how consumers must feel when evaluating what type of WiFi products you spec into a bid or presentation.

Perhaps hearing that concern, the WiFi Alliance had put the public face of the various standards generations into a logical, numerical, progression. Of key importance are the three latest standards, as you would be doing clients a significant disservice to specify anything else for new installations.

802.11g is now labelled “WiFi 4”
802.11ac is now labelled “WiFi 5”
802.11ax is now labelled “WiFi 6”

Isn’t that simple? No more confusing, out of sequence names. Now, all you need to do is quote the speeds and other key benefits of the unit without having to go into a lengthy explanation of why the standard names are all over the place and not at all intuitive. Technologists and engineers have already worked on a variety of additions to the WiFi standards that have both single- and dual-suffix appendixes. Hopefully, when whatever the next standard is rolls out, its consumer facing identity will start life as “WiFi 7”. 

USB logos

Unlike the “all over the place” numerology of WiFi, USB standards have at least followed a more or less logical numerical progression. 

USB 1.0 delivered 12 Mbps through Type A, Type B, Mini and Micro connectors

USB 2.0 delivered up to 480 Mbps through Type A, Type B, Mini and Micro connectors

USB 3.0 delivered up to 5 Gbps through Type A, Type B, Mini-B and Micro-B connectors, identified by the blue insert in the Type A and B connectors

USB 3.1 Gen2 doubled the possible speed to 10 Gbps through Type A or Type C connectors 

USB 3.2 doubled the speed again to a possible 20 Gbps through Type C connectors

On the face of it, this seems reasonably logical to understand, but perhaps fearing some possible consumer confusion, the USB Implementers Forum has changed the designations. At least for consumer-facing marketing, they are replacing some of the numerical identifiers with names and a speed suffix. 

USB 1.0 and USB 2.0 remain unchanged and as is. USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 are now rolled into three levels of “SuperSpeed USB” specs:

USB 3.2 Gen 1 is the new designation for the previous 5Gbps USB 3.0 spec and will be promoted and identified on products as “SuperSpeed USB”

USB 3.2 Gen 2 is the new designation for the previous 10Gbps USB 3.1 spec and will be promoted and identified on products as “SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps”

USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 is the new designation for the previous 20Gbps USB 3.2 spec and will be promoted and identified on products as “SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps”

I leave it to you to decide if these changes make things clearer or more confusing. Hopefully the distinctive logo marks and some promotion and publicity by the USB-IF will help drive the meaning and message home. 

A word of caution: The new suite of “SuperSpeed” standards denotes the speed only. USB 3.2 does note define the connector type or the presence of either power delivery, battery charging or “fast charging”. Presumably at least the latter two will carry their own logos.

As with virtually all technologies we deal with and their underlying standards, nothing stands still in our world. Just as this “Letter” was almost complete the USB Promoter Group announced yet another, new USB standard specification. You guessed it: USB 4.

USB 4 is based on Intel’s Thunderbolt protocol specification and matches Thunderbolt 3’s speed of 40Gbps. As is the case with all the various USB standards, it is backwards compatible so that existing devices are not obsolete; they just can’t deliver the speed and throughput products with the new standards. USB 4 will use the increasingly familiar USB-C connector, already used for data and power connection for new Apple and Windows, paving the way for increasing convergence between the standards. 

To calm everyone’s anxiety about yet another new standard, know that the final standard for USB 4 is not likely to be released until mid-year. Based on that, it is likely that the first USB 4 devices will not hit the market until very late this year, or further into 2020.

At this point I suspect that you are looking for a good headache remedy, and I don’t blame you. If this is all somewhat confusing to you, imagine how your clients feel when they read about all of this in the popular or business press. Imagine how they feel when the engage you for a bid on a new system or an update and then review a bid that is littered with technology, format and product feature designations that they can’t make heads of tails of.

Hopefully, your ability to digest and understand all of this is of use in mitigating those concerns. Along with the base-line definitions, perhaps a few other thoughts are in order. First, a cardinal rule should be to clearly match the system expectations against near to mid-term expansion requirements. It goes without saying that you must accommodate the present, but how far into the future is the client willing to invest in? For example, is there going to be a need for 8K streaming, or can that wait until later?

Next, does everything need to be updated at once, or can the oldest devices and cables be taken care of first, making the cost and hassle of future updates more acceptable? 

Finally, always explain the landscape and upgrade options carefully. That type of information is behind this piece and is key to retaining customer confidence. Perhaps it might be worthwhile to do some education on these and other shifting standards even when there is no sale pending. The information shows your skills and reminds that you are there for the long term, and not just to always sell something new. 

At the end of the day, while “Content is King”, connectivity standards are the King’s court keep the wheels of the court turning! We’ll help by giving some of the grease to keep those wheels moving forward as we continue to move from one standard to another, regardless of the numeric designation! 

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group or follow him on Twitter @captnvid.