Electronic Design

Communications: Wireless

Wireless Technologies Portend The Future
We are well on our way to a widely wireless world. In fact, is there anything electronic today that isn't wireless? When we say wireless, of course, we're talking about cellular phones and wireless local-area networks (LANs).

Growth in anything wireless is amazing, and there are some exciting new developments on the horizon—not bad for a technology that just celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. Thanks, Marconi... and Hertz, and Maxwell, and....

The cell phone is the personification of wireless technology—its industry is a "work in progress." All cell-phone technologies, old and new, continue to exist concurrently as new developments proliferate. Analog phones still exist, but they are fading fast. Second-generation (2G) digital phones (GSM, TDMA IS-136, CDMA) are growing in number as their rollout continues. Packet-based 2.5G digital phones are now available for those who want fast e-mail and Internet access while waiting for the next generation of cellular phones.

Progress toward third-generation (3G) phones continues as vendors zero in on one of the competing technologies. Some 3G phones and services are expected to be available in late 2002 (in Europe and Japan), but most volume sales in the U.S. will be in 2004 and beyond.

The burning issue is still whether or not people really want a fast e-mail and Internet connection via cell phones. Granted, some do. But how many? That's the big question. The key to 3G's success is generating a good revenue stream that will pay back the immense investment in infrastructure required to bring fast data services to a mobile phone. But the killer app for even 3G cell phones will continue to be... tada! Voice. E-mail and fast messaging are a distant second.

One potential hot application may turn out to be location services based upon the forthcoming E911 technology. E911 will come online gradually, with full compliance not expected until 2005. It will serve its intended purpose of safety and security well, but carriers are expected to conceive and offer various location services to help offset the investment made in location technologies. What will these apps be, and which ones, if any, will dominate?

One potential future competitor to packed-based cell phones is wireless LANs that communicate with PDAs and laptops via public-access points. Wireless LANs haven't been around all that long. Practical units first became available in the early 1990s. Yet as standards have solidified and as new ICs have become available, prices have dropped, making wireless LANs quite popular.

While they once served only a special need for remote access in unique situations, their low cost, ease of deployment, and across-the-board interoperability have made them an exceptionally hot item, not only for the enterprise but also in the home. An example is the Orinoco residential gateway available from Agere (www.agere.com). And, the wireless LAN bandwagon continues to move forward as new standards and improved chip sets seek to make wireless networking ubiquitous.

Even more wireless products and systems are on the way. Wireless broadband systems are becoming available in areas where no DSL or cable exists. Wireless telemetry in sensor networks is a growing industrial niche. And ultimately, the FCC will approve ultra-wideband (UWB) that will give us 100 Mbit/s LANs and cheap, short-range single-chip radars. It is indeed a wireless future.

The rollout of 2.5G cell phones. This interim technology will provide packet-based data services until 3G phones and systems arrive. The most popular 2.5G technology, General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), enhances GSM TDMA phones to provide a data rate up to 115 kbits/s. The first GPRS phones became available in 2001, with growth expected until 3G becomes available sometime around 2004.


An ongoing spectrum crisis. To provide the bandwidth needed for fast wireless packet-based services, carriers need more bandwidth in the frequency spectrum. The FCC continues to seek suitable bands and arbitrate their shared uses among potential users.


More cell-phone/PDA and phone/laptop combinations plus competition from wireless LANs. As more wireless LAN access points come online in convention centers, airports, and hotels, the need for data access via cell phone diminishes.


Ongoing work on the various network standards to improve security. Flaws in 802.11b and other standards leave wireless LANs open to attack. New work in the standards groups will produce the changes to make security commonplace (IEEE 802.1x and 802.11i).


Ongoing growth of products based on the IEEE-802.11b wireless Ethernet standard, which operates up to 11 Mbits/s in the 2.4-GHz band. The WiFi interoperability testing program, along with uninterrupted price decreases, has made this "the" wireless LAN standard for enterprise and homes. The new IEEE-802.11a standard, approved in late 2001, provides a migration path for 802.11b users requiring greater speed up to 54 Mbits/s, using either OFDM or PBCC-CCK.


Advancements in products based on the IEEE 802.11a standard, which operates at up to 54 Mbits/s in the 5-GHz band. Costs will continue to decline. The product will offer an alternative to the slower 802.11b.


Work toward 4G systems. Some progress has already been made. Even though 3G is not implemented, carriers want to know where they are headed so they can plan to get there.


Voice will continue to dominate as the primary application. Carriers will use 2.5G phones to explore and test data applications like e-mail, short message service (SMS), and Internet access. Implementation of the enhanced 911 (E911) service by 2005 will bring profitable location-based services. Video applications aren't likely.


FCC approval of ultra-wideband (UWB) technology. Expected development and deployment of new UWB 100-Mbit/s LANs. New chip sets will implement fast LANs as well as cheap radars.


Growth in the home-networking market. More multiple-PC homes will seek a way to share a broadband Internet connection, a printer, and other resources with a home LAN as prices drop and ease of installation improves. Wireless (802.11b) will dominate due to its anyplace-anytime convenience.

See associated timeline.

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