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Too many radios, too little cell space

Posted: 13 Dec 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:cellphone? handset? telephony? 802.11? personal-area network?

Cellphone makers are about to find out how many radios they can squeeze into a handset. But, unlike exuberant college students trying to cram themselves into a telephone booth, this challenge in telephony offers none of the fun of a frat party.

Among the radios in tomorrow's handset will be one supporting several flavors of wide-area wireless for voice, global positioning satellite for location-based services, newcomer FM radio for fun and at least one variety of 802.11 for tapping into Internet hotspots. In the personal-area network (pan), there's bluetooth, infrared, near-field communications, ultrawideband (UWB)which itself comes in two flavorsZigbee and, just for good measure, possibly RFID. Getting claustrophobic yet?

Indeed, the bad thing about wireless standards is that there are so many of them, particularly for PANs. Indications are strong that one or two could consolidate or drop out during the next couple of years. But around the same time, three or more wide-area wireless standards hit the market, in what is starting to seem like a zero-sum game.

Engineers are in intense discussions over whether Bluetooth should adopt the UWB physical layer for its next-generation spec as one step toward consolidation. Separately, Bluetooth, nearfield communications and infrared are slugging it out in the market to become the transport of choice for electronic payments on tomorrow's handsets.

In the wide area, meanwhile, at least three approaches to delivering digital TV to handsets are marching toward a 2006 market debut. That's about the time WiMax is expected to start giving the latest cellular-data standards a run for their money for long-range, high-speed service.

"There are simply too many wireless standards around. Just to get a technical understanding of how they are different and how you might market them to a user is difficult," said Jaap Haartsen, a chief scientist in the mobile-platforms group at Ericsson in Sweden.

"There are a lot of technologies coming simultaneously, and we are trying to incorporate as many of them as we can," said Pratik Mehta, a senior communications technologist at Dell Inc. Power, interference and antenna-placement problems are cropping up even in the relatively large "telephone booth" of a notebook computer, he added.

"We are letting our engineers generate too many standards when there is still so much work left to be done with the existing ones," concurred Paul Marino, GM of the wireless group at Philips Semiconductors. "We are going to wind up with an air interface for every single problem."

Indeed, big companies like Dell and Philips have people sitting on a dozen different groups to develop or promote often-overlapping wireless standards. The folks who run those groups are being pressed to stop extending their technology into every new nook and cranny, and instead, to find synergies with their erstwhile competitors.

"By the middle of next year, we will start talking about building the bridges, but we all have to get our primary missions under control first. Focus is a good thing," said Bob Heile, who chairs the Zigbee Alliance as well as the IEEE committee trying to standardize UWB. For a start, Heile said he is actively looking for ways to collaborate with proponents of RFID. But perhaps the biggest near-term opportunity is consolidation with Bluetooth.

"To date there has been less collaboration [among wireless-standards efforts] than there could be, but there will be more moving forward," said Michael Foley, the recently hired technical director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). "We can do better, and this is something I take personally as an initiative."

Specifically, the SIG is debating whether to adopt the 480Mbps UWB physical-layer spec for its so-called high-data-rate generation, which was initially aiming at only 10Mbps.

Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR), which claims it sells 47 percent of all Bluetooth chips, wants to see the Bluetooth-UWB merger, as does Dell. Ericsson, which developed Bluetooth but no longer sells merchant Bluetooth components, is against the move. Nokia and Broadcom are taking a neutral stance in public.

"Ericsson was an advocate of the 10Mbps concept," said Glenn Collinson, co-founder of CSR. "The fact that they have pulled back [from the component market] has reopened the debate. Now the official line is that 10Mbps is the next step, but the reality of the situation is the debate has been re-engaged."

CSR wants the Bluetooth SIG to continue to specify its own technology, rather than open it up to a broader IEEE process. But it also wants the SIG to adopt UWB. For the chip maker, such a move could extend its available market from cell phones and peripherals into consumer electronics. The SIG expects to make a decision by June.

"We are hoping the next generation of wireless PANs is something that is scalable," spanning today's 1Mbps Bluetooth to a 1Gbps UWB spec expected in a couple of years, said Mehta of Dell. Mehta said that under nondisclosure agreements, he has seen companies working on just such technologies.

Haartsen of Ericsson pointed out that Bluetooth can achieve its current megabit data rates across a range of several meters, but UWB gets its fastest data rates only if the range is kept to about 1 meter. "How do you explain that to a user?" he asked.

While remaining publicly noncommittal, one Nokia executive expressed concern that the emerging ad hoc networking capabilities of 802.11 could scoop up some of Bluetooth's key applications. Others say UWB has too many problems for anyone to bet their futures on it.

Broadcom Corp., which claims it now has 150 design wins for its Bluetooth chips, is firmly on the fence. "We're watching UWB. It's possible it could become the next generation of Bluetooth, but it's yet not clear whether it makes sense," said CTO Henry Samueli.

Wireless cashier

At the applications level, Bluetooth, infrared and near-field communications (NFC) are vying to see which will be the preferred means for making wireless payments with a cell phone or PDA. In South Korea, as many as 40,000 retailers and 3 million phones are part of a test of infrared for electronic payments, said Ron Brown, executive director of the Infrared Data Association (IrDA). "That's one heck of a field trial," he said.

Some might be amazed infrared is in the running at all. Even Brown admits that only 5 percent of the estimated 150 million phones equipped with infrared actually use the technology, which has long appeared on most notebook computers, too. "IrDA was considered the most successful technology failure ever. The implementations have been horrible, and it was difficult to use until the Windows 2000 implementation," said Brown.

Today, Japan's IrFM standard, supported by Agilent Technologies and others, lets users securely send credit or debit card information from their mobile devices to payment kiosks over infrared. And earlier this year, the Japanese carrier Docomo announced that its Foma phones can control home electronics via infrared.

"Our customers are still requiring an IrDA port on all chip sets, and that doesn't seem to be going away," said Rick Wietfeldt, deputy chief technologist in the wireless-terminals group at Texas Instruments Inc. (TI).

Security is the big issue for wireless payments, and here infrared, which requires line-of-sight connections, has a natural edge over broadcast-radio schemes like Bluetooth. "Banks like infrared because it is short-range and point-to-point. You are not transmitting sensitive financial data to the person behind you," Brown said.

TI's Wietfeldt believes the perception of infrared as more secure than competing technologies will diminish over time. "I think as people become more comfortable with the security of RF wireless, IrDA will move aside," he said.

CSR is already demonstrating a security feature in its next-generation BlueCore 5. Once a Bluetooth connection is established, the chip will be able to essentially lock onto a single receiver based on its distance and lock out communications with any other device. "That addresses the concern that we not be broadcasting to everyone," said CSR's Collinson.

However, Bluetooth has another problem impeding its use in electronic payments: Users cannot transmit payment data by quickly waving a handset past a reader the way they swipe an ATM card through a slot. That's because Bluetooth requires a relatively complex setup process for connections handled by software profiles.

"I think that makes Bluetooth too complicated for payments. The Bluetooth profiles themselves are too complex," said Avner Goren, director of marketing for TI's cellphone chips. Goren said that near-field communications is becoming the wireless transport for payments on many phones in Japan.

In March, Nokia, Philips and Sony set up the NFC Forum to develop and promote the technology, which operates over a 13.56MHz frequency across ranges typically <10cm. The forum claims NFC will hit data rates up to 1Mbps, although 106Kbps to 212Kbps are more common today. Motorola, Nokia and Samsung have said they will support NFC in their phones. To date, only Philips is providing NFC chips.

The next big thing for the handset is digital TV. TI's Goren said TV reception will encourage consumers to use their phones more often and may stimulate some new network traffic for applications like voting on a reality-TV show.

Several RF approaches exist for bringing DTV to the handset. Europe has the DVB-H standard and Japan its ISDB standard. In the United States, an enhanced vestigial-sideband approach is part of the digital TV spec, while Korea is experimenting with satellite TV.

This fall, TI announced its Hollywood integrated chip supporting DVB-H and ISDB. It will sample next year and reach production in 2006. "The U.S. needs to make a decision about which way it goes [for mobile TV], but I don't think there will be any regulation here," Goren said.

TI's late-October announcement was timed to steal thunder from Qualcomm Inc., which announced on Nov. 1 a plan to spend up to $800 million to roll out a proprietary mobile-TV broadcast service in the United States using spectrum it acquired in the 700MHz (channel 55) area. MediaFLO USA Inc., a new Qualcomm subsidiary, will aggregate content from cable, terrestrial and satellite TV service providers, with plans to offer by 2006 some "50 to 100 national and local channels, including up to 15 live streaming channels and numerous clip-cast and audio channels," according to a company statement. Qualcomm's integrated chip set for handsets, the MBD1000, supports the service.

But observers have slammed the Qualcomm plan as expensive, since it requires a new infrastructure and is limited to the U.S.

"There is every reason to believe Qualcomm will have as much success internationally with this [broadcast venture] as they have had with CDMA," said Richard Doherty, principal of consulting firm Envisioneering. However, by the time of the Consumer Electronics Show in January, "I think you will see as many as eight handheld digital TV receivers, and none of them will require a new cellular infrastructure," Doherty added.

Adding to the fun, Dell's Mehta said he foresees WiMax starting to offer 70Mbps wide-area connections by 2006 with the IEEE 802.16d spec and 100Mbps a year later with .16e, potentially competing with cellular wireless-data standards that offer much lower data rates.

Samueli of Broadcom, however, gave WiMax a thumbs-down. The company has worked on two kinds of broadband wireless chips that both flopped, he said. The latest was a collaborative project with Cisco Systems Inc. to deliver 70Mbps for carriers MCI and Sprint.

"There were production plans, but MCI and Sprint couldn't work out the business plan and canceled the program. We have the technology running in our labs, but no one has put forward a viable business case for it," he said.

"There are dozens of wireless technologies out there," Samueli concluded, "but we can't invest in all of them."

- Rick Merritt

EE Times

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