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Asia ups ante on wireless functionality

Posted: 03 Jan 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:wireless? 3g? cdma? market? growth?

Functionality and convergence are painting Asia's wireless landscape a shade brighter this year as more consumers in the region go mobile. The CDMA sector alone added 29 million subscribers in Q3, according to the CDMA Development Group. But it is a mosaic of trends as countries report different developments in the wireless arena. While mainland China still has to give out 3G licenses, Korea is already churning out next-generation handsets to replace old models. Taiwan is also busy with wireless invading the home.

Last year's mobile phone market in China was dominated by products with color displays and polyphonic ringtones. In the latter part of 2004, cellphones with camera modules and MP3 playback capability cropped up in the local market. That trend is expected to continue this year as telecom carriers push more innovative value-added services such as MMS, downloads and gaming. "Higher functionality of feature phones will drive applications and services, increasing embedded content and demand for more airtime," said Kenny Cheung, Asia-Pacific GM for the wireless and mobile systems group at Freescale Semiconductor Inc.

While Gartner Dataquest predicts 2005 to be the year for smart phones, this will not be the case in China. Many manufacturers in the mainland are focusing only on adding functionality to their products and most of them are still not interested in adopting next-generation wireless communication technologies. Manufacturers hold back developments for these new technologies because of the lack of supporting infrastructure and immature chipset development platforms. This is despite news that some mainland companies have come up with 3G handsets.

"This situation will continue in the next couple of years. The 3G network infrastructure requires heavy investment and won't be completed in a short time. Local manufacturers would rather invest in the more cost-efficient 2.75G (EDGE) technology," said Guo Bing, director of development center in Haier Telecommunication Co. Ltd.

According to Liu Bing, VP of MobileSoft Technology (Nanjing) Co. Ltd, among the 582 handset models introduced last year in mainland China, only a dozen of them were smart phones. He added that the expensive chipset development platform for the smart phone has made profitability difficult for manufacturers.

Hou Zi Qiang, chairman of China Kejian Corp. said, "The major market driver of 3G will be mobile wideband access, and this will happen in accordance with fixed wideband business. There will not be a single killer application. Average revenue per user for mobile users will only grow gradually. The relationship between 3G and 2G is just like that of DVD and VCD, it will be a smooth upgrade process."

Anticipating China's own 3G standard, the TD-SCDMA to be licensed out early this year, Analog Devices Inc. is launching a chipset for this and another one for the W-CDMA standard.

Other domestic and foreign companies are also setting their eyes on TD-SCDMA and have already come up with products while some companies such as Philips, Samsung and Nokia have set aside R&D funding for TD-SCDMA.

Tech integration

Integrating other wireless technologies is another trend of handset development in mainland China. The price of Bluetooth chipsets, for example, has dropped to a reasonable level, injecting optimism in suppliers. Jean-Francois Barati, Asia wireless communication director at Texas Instruments Inc., noted that Bluetooth will be a standard offering in the vast majority of mobile phones in the next few years. This will support low data-rate connectivity for data synchronization and wireless connectivity to mobile phone accessories.

wi-fi technology is also attracting some chipset companies. In addition to wireless data access, Wi-Fi supports efficient wireless VoIP, said Barati. "Having cellular and Wi-Fi integrated into a mobile handset, users can make voice calls using the most efficient connection available. This transfer from the Wi-Fi network to the cellular network would happen seamlessly and transparently for the user."

As mobile phones integrate more functions, logic cooperation between conventional communication and innovative functions has become a major challenge for designers, thus software is becoming more important. Embedded software in mobile phones is getting more complex, and the interaction between communication and other functions need to be addressed.

Korea upgrades

While functionality and technology integration are becoming more important in China's wireless landscape, South Korea's mobile market is moving more into meeting consumer demand for leading-edge mobile phone replacements.

The 144Kbps wireless Internet-enabled cdma2000 1x terminals appeared in Korea in 2000. The colored terminal was introduced in 2001. The year after, the camera phone was launched. In 2003, TV phones and MP3 phones led the digital convergence. The camera phone is expected to share from 18 to 20 percent of total mobile phone units and increase significantly to 50 percent this year.

Camera resolution is also improving in mobile phones. Last year, 3Mpixel phones were introduced and have now been upgraded to 5Mpixel, threatening the position of the digital camera. Early this year, Qualcomm will roll out a 6Mpixel phone.

Competition in camera phones is not just about higher resolutions. Functionality also plays a role in attracting consumers. Functions like digital and optical zoom and auto-focus are being added, shrinking the gap with digital still cameras.

Interest on DMB phones is also growing, with satellite DMB service to be launched in Korea this year. Samsung Electronics recently rolled out a mobile phone using 3D display technology. Telematics-related features are being introduced to provide various services including LBS and home networking.

General trends in the design of the mobile phone are in making for the RF components modular and single chip, adopting high-performance processor and high-capacity memory. Also, longer lasting batteries and fast signal processing are also becoming important in the designs.

Overtaking TFT-LCD, UFB and OLED are becoming mainstream display technologies. As for the platform technology, efforts to develop Linux as the OS are being made and various interfaces for short range communications such as USB, Bluetooth and IrDA are being added. Overall, Korea's subscribers are looking ahead for the future cellphoneif you can still call it a cellphone.

Digital home in Taiwan

Last year, the 802.11a standard replaced the 802.11b as the mainstream application of the WLAN market. However, in wireless markets with keen competition, WLAN is marching toward the home application field because of the high-transmission efficiency of the new-generation standard.

The digital home will be the ultimate battlefield of numerous wireless technologies, as forecasted by In-Stat/MDR. The market research firm believes that in response to the demands by the multimedia network, annual growth rate of the home networking semiconductor will reach 12 percent in the next five years, and the total market scale will exceed $2.3 billion. Wi-Fi is expected to be the largest winnerhome equipment such as HDTV, DVD player, digital camera, game machine, media center and PVR will all take Wi-Fi as the connection medium.

In Taiwan, HDTV is becoming the touchstone for Wi-Fi to march into the home. In Q3 of 2004, Atheros Communications introduced a chipset that integrates the 802.11a/b/g and 802.11e QoS standards for HDTV, which can maintain data transmission rate of 30Mbps within a distance of 30m. "It's enough for HDTV data streaming," said Colin L. M. Macnab, marketing business VP at Atheros.

IP telephony is another target market for Wi-Fi. By the end of 2008, the consumer electronics and IP telephony markets would occupy 50 percent in sales volume of the total WLAN chip industry. However, with the increasing popularity of Wi-Fi voice technology integration, Wi-Fi and cellular network integration will also become the focus in the wireless field.

Wi-Fi gets an edge

Although the wireless communications industry is rapidly developing because of the wide application of mobile phones and Wi-Fi, some large manufacturers are still developing and establishing products based on new and emerging standards. In the field of short-distance wireless communications, technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ultrawideband, ZigBee and NFC have appeared successively. Among these short-range communication technologies, Wi-Fi remains the widely applied; other standards remain on the "negotiation" phase.

Companies such as Freescale, Alereon and Wisair said they will provide UWB chips this year, but support for Zigbee is also growing from companies such as Ember and Atmel. Each wireless technology would seem to have its own target market. However, in applications for the digital home, the commonality of these technologies will be high. ABI Research forecasted that the wired network, WLAN and UWB will become three main solutions for the future home entertainment network. But in the wireless field, real competition will be between Wi-Fi and UWB.

This year will be the key point for wireless technology integration. However, UWB, which will be mass-produced starting this year, may threaten some Wi-Fi applications with high transmission rates from 100Mbps to 200Mbps. It is also believed that the 802.11n standard, which will be established in 2006, will gain favor on the home front because of its potential of providing wireless video transmission.

It remains to be seen whether current and emerging wireless technologies complement or compete with each other. The differences these technologies will become clearer or fuzzier the closer they get to our doorstep.

Joh Yoon-Ju in Seoul, Jake Chen in Shenzhen, Joy Teng in Taipei and Majeed Ahmad in Manila contributed for this story.

- Dave Ledesma

Electronic Engineering Times-Asia

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