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Standardization of Wireless Internet Technologies

Submission of Testimony
For the Record


New technologies for Wireless Internet will have major economic ramifications and will greatly expand the availability of broadband access in the United States. The success of new technologies is closely linked to the development of interoperability standards, which define the marketplace. Successful standardization efforts are global and driven by technical superiority. NIST has taken a leadership role in advancing the global voluntary industry standardization of Wireless Internet technologies based on technical criteria. Implementation of the National Wireless Electronic Systems Testbed at NIST will provide the U.S. with a means to accelerate the development of global, technically superior wireless interoperability standards.

Growth of the Wireless Internet

Predictions of explosive growth in wireless data communications have become ubiquitous. A widely-cited report1  forecasts that mobile data users will exceed fixed Internet users in Western Europe in 2003. At least one published study predicts that, by 2003, more people will be accessing the Internet via a mobile phone than a computer.2  In a December 1999 address to a meeting of high-level U.S. and E.U. government and industry officials at the Finnish Embassy in Washington, Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila predicted that, by 2003 most Internet access devices will be wireless.3  Obviously, such developments will have profound social and economic implications. The current strength of the U.S. economy is strongly related to the increasing penetration of the Internet. As the Internet goes wireless, will the U.S. maintain its leading position?


Interoperability standards, which specify how devices communicate with each other, are vital to the success of telecommunications systems. Vinton Cerf, recently said "People often take the view that standardization is the enemy of creativity. But I think that standards help make creativity possible—by allowing for the establishment of an infrastructure, which then leads to enormous entrepreneurialism, creativity, and competitiveness."4  The unified digital transmission standard adopted for mobile telephones in Europe is often cited as a major factor for the high rate of mobile phone usage there.5  The continental standard is also a very useful platform on which to base a large export business.

In the United States, transmission standards for certain wireless communications were for many years mandated by the Federal Communications Commission as part of the licensing process. However, since 1994, large amounts of spectrum has been licensed to private users without mandatory transmission standards. Likewise, significant blocks of spectrum have been made available on a license-exempt basis without specified standards. In some cases, industry has been slow to react to the unregulated environment, missing opportunities to create unified standards.

Wireless Internet Technologies Based on the Cellular Telephone Model

To many people, wireless communications simply means "cellular telephones." Most such cellular systems were designed for voice communications and are not well equipped to handle data. The new third-generation ("3G") systems under development are, for the most part, based on the cellular telephone infrastructure model: they use spectrum, base stations, and networks that are controlled by a network operator; these communicate with handheld customer terminals that may be mobile, sometimes moving at automotive speed. The 3G technologies are intended to evolve current systems toward a focus on data, opening up a wide range of mobile Internet services. The data rate goals are 144 kbit/s at automotive speeds, 384 kbit/s at pedestrian speeds, and 2 Mbit/s at fixed locations. It is not clear that all service providers will make the investments necessary to support all of these service classes; some might prefer to focus their valuable infrastructure and spectrum on their most mobile users, a rapidly growing revenue source.

Standardization of Wireless Internet Technologies on the Cellular Telephone Model

Third generation wireless has been standardized through the International Mobile Telecommunications IMT-2000 standards developed by the ITU-R (International Telecommunications Union - Radiocommunications Sector). IMT-2000 is history's most widely publicized standardization effort. In part, this publicity reflects the contentious nature of the process. Many people are concerned that IMT-2000 foreshadows a new order in which standards disputes are the focal point of international trade disputes. This is not a foregone conclusion. Innumerable standardization efforts succeed on a regular basis without publicity or undue strife.

The ITU is the traditional body for the publication of international standards in telecommunications. It is a United Nations agency with national governments as member organizations and strong private sector participation in developing standards. Often, standards under consideration by ITU have been first developed by national technical bodies. Disagreement may arise at the international level when there is perception that the standards being advocated are actually promoting one country's national interest.

Wireless Internet Technologies Based on Computer Network Technology

While IMT-2000 systems are extremely important, they are not the only wireless data technologies available. Three important wireless Internet technologies for the future have grown not from the cellular telephone industry but from the computer networking industry. Computer networking vendors understand that their markets do not flourish without interoperability among each other's equipment. Therefore, the industry has banded together to develop standards on a global, technical, and generally nonpolitical basis.

In the world of computer networks, one technical organization has been virtually the sole global source of basic (hardware-oriented) networking standards. That organization is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE),6 a nonprofit technical professional society of 350,000 members. In particular, the IEEE LAN/MAN {Local/Metropolitan Area Networks} Standards Committee (generally known as "IEEE 802") has been the source of the ubiquitous "Ethernet" standards that define local area networks and have rapidly turned new technology into readily-available commodity equipment. A hallmark of IEEE is an open, transnational consensus process that encourages technical feedback. The result is broad participation that quickly leads to technical improvement.

In the last few years, IEEE 802 has become extremely active in wireless data networking. It currently has efforts in three areas supporting wireless Internet:

  • Wireless LANs (Local Area Networks): The Wireless LAN, sometime called "wireless Ethernet," is defined by IEEE Working Group 802.118. Unlike cellular systems, these networks do not involve a "subscription" service from an operator. That is because (1) they work in unlicensed spectrum, so anyone can operate them without government permission; (2) they are short-range systems intended for use around a building or a campus. The widely-used 802.11b standard supports data rates up to 11 Mb/s; the newer 802.11a standard, which is not yet in wide use, supports rates up to 54 Mbit/s. In order to provide the user with access to the Internet, the core network must at some point be connected to it, using a wired or wireless connection. For users who are static or moving slowly within a fixed zone, the Wireless LAN solution can be quite effective. Because the devices communicate to local access points (or to other Wireless LAN devices), the power is small and the same spectrum can be used simultaneously in nearby buildings. With the 802.11b standard in place, the costs are falling rapidly and deployments accelerating. Large-scale networks have been deployed; for instance, the "Wireless Andrew"9 project at Carnegie Mellon University now supports 802.11 users across its 10,000-person campus. At the same time, small applications are also flourishing. For example, one large personal computer manufacturer now makes the 802.11b network card a $99 option in its consumer models and markets it as a method to allow a laptop computers to roam throughout a house.10
  • Wireless PANs (Personal Area Networks):  Wireless PANs also use license-exempt bands but are intended to serve shorter-range connections (up to about 10 meters) than Wireless LANs. The industry has been led by a global consortium known as the Bluetooth Special Interest Group.11  Aiming for very low-cost implementation (with price targets on the order of $5 per device), Bluetooth intends to provide practical connectivity options to virtually any sort of electronic device. Recognizing the importance of IEEE 802, Bluetooth has submitted its specification (with a maximum 721 kbit/s data rate) to IEEE Working Group 802.1512  for review and eventual publication as a standard. An independent industry consortium, the HomeRF Working Group13, also involves many companies and has developed a Wireless PAN specification of its own. Wireless PAN devices are not widely available at this time, but one group has estimated sales of 126 million Bluetooth devices by 200214 and projections of a billion units per year are being suggested.

Like Wireless LANs, Wireless PANs offer connections not to "the Internet" but to other devices or to wired access points. If one of these is connected to the Internet, then all of the devices may have access. In both cases, a service provider could provide access points in public spaces, possibly collecting a fee for use. Public Wireless LAN access points are today available in hotels and in Singapore's Changi Airport.15

  • Wireless MANs (Metropolitan Area Networks):  IEEE Working Group 802.1616 is working to develop Wireless MANs (Metropolitan Area Networks) using fixed broadband wireless access technology. In many ways, this technology is similar to cellular telephony; it uses centralized base stations, typically on top of high buildings or towers, to address subscriber terminals within a range of several (up to tens of) kilometers. The spectrum is normally (but not always) licensed, and the base stations are nearly always controlled by a network operator charging for the service. Among the key differences from cellular telephony are: (1) the amount of spectrum is much larger, so that much higher date rates (for example, 155 Mbit/s to a subscriber terminal) are possible; (2) the frequency is higher (often much higher); this typically means that a direct line of sight may be required for consistent results; (3) the customer terminals are fixed in location, typically on a roof. These Wireless MAN systems do not provide mobility. Instead, they provide users with high-speed (broadband) access to core public networks, including the Internet. In some cases, such a service can act to the benefit of a consumer by competing with wired services. In other cases, no acceptable wired service is available. For example, while fiber optic connections provide an excellent solution for many business applications, only about 3% of commercial business are provided with fiber connections; for most of the others, fiber installation is prohibitively expensive and may in many cases not be deployed rapidly. Wireless systems can be much quicker to deploy and can be very cost-competitive, especially once standardization brings the hardware costs down.

At the moment, Wireless MANs are targeted primarily at business applications. However, this is changing as new FCC rules have made lower frequencies available for two-way use. Two major consumer telephone services providers have recently obtained rights to much of this spectrum and have declared their intention to make use of it to offer broadband Internet service to residential customers.17  Noting that rural areas are often underserved by telecommunications infrastructure, many have noted the advantages of fixed wireless technologies in relatively low-density areas. As noted recently by FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani, "many observers believe that wireless technologies offer great promise as a broadband solution in smaller cities and rural areas. They note that while new wireline infrastructure in rural areas is very expensive, a wireless solution can offer a cost effective entry strategy that can be used for rapid market entry. A multitude of fixed wireless broadband services are currently being deployed or are in the planning stages. While some are more targeted to an urban environment, others provide the necessary range and technical capability for deployment in rural areas. One example is the multichannel multipoint distribution service, otherwise known as MMDS or wireless cable. It offers the potential to provide broadband access to underserved markets."18

Even in urban areas, broadband access is available to only a small portion of the residential population, typically through cable modems or digital subscriber lines (DSL). Wireless MANs could greatly expand the range of coverage and could bring competition to markets that are currently served by broadband providers.

NIST Support for Wireless Internet Standardization

NIST has been supporting the voluntary industry standardization of Wireless Internet technologies based on technical considerations. NIST's commitment to promoting wireless Internet standards is well illustrated by its role in the IEEE 802 LAN/MAN Standards Committee. A NIST staff member serves on the Executive Committee of IEEE 802 and is therefore in a position to stay informed of all the Committee's effort and serve in a proactive capacity at the administrative level. NIST is also involved in several key Working Group roles:

  • Wireless MANs: NIST initiated the global effort toward Wireless MAN standardization by initiating IEEE 802.16. NIST began contacting industry participants in this technology in the spring of 1998, shortly after the U.S. auction for large bands of the spectrum was complete. After publicizing the topic with a web site19 and newsletter, NIST invited participants to a series of meetings, each attended by about 50 people. A NIST staff member arranged an invitation for a joint meeting with IEEE 802 that eventually led to the creation of 802.16. This staff member has chaired 802.16 since inception, providing the transparently unbiased leadership that encourages voluntary industry cooperation. The working group now has four projects underway, covering the business-oriented higher frequencies (exemplified by Local Multipoint Distribution Service [LMDS]), residential-oriented lower frequencies (including MMDS), and unlicensed bands. Meeting six times a year in week-long sessions (with typically around 130 people from around the globe), the group has made rapid progress toward consensus; for example, 19 initial submissions for the core standard were consolidated to two merged proposals within two months by voluntary industry cooperation. Simultaneously, the group has engaged with the only other significant standardization body working in the field, a unit of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Although 802.16 includes a number of European participants, the 802.16 membership seeks a cooperative relationship with ETSI. Active discussions are underway, and 802.16 has reasonable hopes of an agreement with ETSI on a joint standard. This would then be submitted to ITU-R for consideration as a legal international standard; 802.16's relationship with ITU-R is well developed. Clearly, NIST initiation and leadership of the 802.16 effort is central to 802.16's success. In recognition of this effort, a trade magazine recently named the NIST staffer in its "Hall of Fame" announcement for leading "the drive for consistent and universal transmission standards to ensure secure and stable communications, minimal interference, and interoperability of equipment and services."20
  • Wireless PANs: NIST has taken a strong stance in support of Wireless PANs. NIST provides technical expertise and support to various industry-led standards groups. For example, as a member of the IEEE 802.15 Working Group on Wireless PANs, NIST is conducting formal modeling and verification of the draft IEEE 802.15.1 standard that is based on Bluetooth specification v1.0. Also, NIST is conducting a coexistence performance analysis and modeling of wireless devices to evaluate the interference among Bluetooth, HomeRF, and 802.11 Wireless LAN systems, which all operate in the same unlicensed 2.4 GHz frequency band. The 802.15 group will use NIST's modeling and simulation information to develop standards and guidance to ensure the correctness and unambiguous specifications of these protocols and their coexistence in a multi-technology environment. NIST staff also serves as Vice-Chairman of the 802.15 Co-existence Task Group.

National Wireless Electronic Systems Testbed (N-WEST) to support Wireless Internet

NIST has historically been able to make major contributions to wireless Internet standardization by technically supporting standards-developing committees and, more recently, by proactive efforts to initiate and lead standardization projects. However, it could be doing much more if it were to apply its measurement expertise to the problem.

NIST's Measurement and Standards Laboratories are a core strength. Measurement can play a key role in standardization by providing data to illuminate issues to be decided. Without measurement, simulations are a useful fallback, but wireless systems are too complicated for simulations to be fully reliable. Measurements from a neutral party, such as NIST, are highly influential and can steer a committee toward sound technical decisions.

NIST has developed the concept of the National Wireless Electronic Systems Testbed (N-WEST)

(N-WEST) as an important facility for collaborative system-level measurements in support of wireless standardization. National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) Institute for Telecommunications Sciences in Boulder Colorado, in its role of assessing the performance of new and innovative wireless communication systems, is collaborating with NIST on this important testbed activity.  N-WEST anticipates working closely with industry and academia and expects frequent visitors to participate in the measurement process. Such a project would accelerate the development of standards (and therefore the deployment of networks dependent on them), increase the technical quality of standards, and enhance the opportunity for U.S. leadership in the worldwide standardization process. It would also increase the likelihood that open standards, rather than proprietary solutions, will become the leading wireless Internet technologies.

Another projected role of N-WEST is to support the many NIST measurements of components that comprise wireless systems. In many cases, the link between component performance and system performance cannot be determined by simulation. System-level measurements tied to NIST component-level measurements can aid the industry in effectively specifying parts and can provide the data for NIST to develop new component-level measurement methods to promote commerce.

Lastly, standards are not fully effective without tests to demonstrate compliance. N-WEST hopes to lead the development of compliance test procedures that can be used in industry interoperability test laboratories.

To this point, N-WEST has been primarily targeted at Wireless MANs, but its applicability is much more general. Over 80 entities have gotten behind the idea and signed up as N-WEST Supporting Companies.21  These are industry associations, service providers, systems integrators, component suppliers, and others who wish to help to set the course for N-WEST.


NIST is making a major contribution to the successful development and deployment of Wireless Internet technologies by accelerating the process by of voluntary industry standardization and keeping it solidly focused on technical issues. NIST's opportunities to further this process would be enhanced by a fully functional wireless testbed.

1.  "Wireless Industry Showing us the Future for the Internet," Telecommunications International, June 1999. (citing material from Wireless Internet: Applications, Technology and Player Strategies (1999-2004), The ARC Group, May 1999.)

2.   "830 Million Internet-Enabled Mobile Devices By 2005," Biz Report, Jan. 2000> (citing material from Wireless Internet Newsletter, IGI Consulting Group, Jan. 21, 2000).

3.  European Institute Roundtable on "Spanning the Spectrum of Communications Policy," Washington, DC, December 15, 1999 (unpublished).

4.  Fast Company, April 2000, p. 106.

5.  "What is Pervasive Computing?", IBM Corp.




9.  www (link removed; no longer active)





14.  Cahners In-Stat Group

15.  "Changi Airport Offers ORINOCO High-Speed Internet Access and Wireless Networking to Passengers," Lucent Technologies, March 22, 2000 <;.


17.  www. (link no longer active)

18.  "Deploying Broadband More Broadly: Working Together to Roll-out Access in America's Small Cities and Rural Areas," FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani, New Mexico Communications Network Symposium, Albuquerque, New Mexico, November 10, 1999 

19.  nwest (link no longer active)

20.  "Hall of Fame Winners," Broadband Solutions, March/April 2000, p. 78. 

21.  nwest (link no longer active)

Created September 24, 2013, Updated October 2, 2019