Electronic Design

Communications Trends

  • Industry consolidation : Major deals changed the communications landscape last year, but the results will only begin to be felt this year. Verizon bought MCI, SBC bought AT&T and changed its name to AT&T, and Sprint and Nextel merged. These mergers bring together all of the major wireless and broadband technologies. Both AT&T and Verizon will now offer TV as well as their new Voice over Internet Protocol services, while Sprint Nextel will provide wireless services for the three major cable TV companies: ComCast, Cox, and Time Warner. Convergence with triple and quad play finally arrives.
  • OFDM wins the wireless battle : Orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) has virtually beat out all other wireless technologies for new products and services. Its initial big push was in DSL a few years ago. Next came the Wi-Fi 802.11a and 11g standards. Since then, OFDM has proven its overall performance in multipath environments against spread-spectrum and other methods. Now, OFDM is the basis of the new WiMAX wireless broadband standard, and the WiMedia Alliance supports OFDM as the winning version of Ultra-Wideband (UWB). OFDM also is used in broadband over powerline (BPL) systems. Next, look for OFDM to be the radio technology of choice for 4G cell phones.
  • Software-defined radio (SDR) methods are gradually adopted : Available now, SDR techniques have slowly made their way into wireless systems, specifically cell-phone basestations, cell-phone handsets, and military radios. SDR is all about making a totally configurable radio adaptable to many standards without changing the hardware. Its promise is full communications and interoperability between military, police, rescue-relief teams, and other emergency personnel during wars and disasters. As analog-to-digital converters and DSPs speed up, more SDR will be implemented. And, the new cognitive radio methods promise some relief from the ongoing spectrum shortage.
  • Mesh brings new life to networking : The mesh network isn't new. It always has been available for use in some form. Yet in the past it, was more trouble to implement than it was worth. That's not the case anymore. Mesh is seeing wide adoption in wireless systems to extend the range of low-power nodes and increase link reliability. A key application is in sensor networks using the new ZigBee standard for military, industrial, and consumer applications. Wi-Fi mesh networks provide broadband access to many in larger cities, as well as municipal communications services. Will UWB be next?
  • 10 Gbits/s, the sweet spot of wired networking : Networking technology that delivers 10 Gbits/s isn't new, but it remains expensive. Let's face it, the need just hadn't been there. Demand is growing, though, and costs are declining. With most local-area networks now at 1 Gbit/s, 10-Gbit/s backbones are needed for aggregation. Thanks to music downloads and the forthcoming video glut, the growth in Internet traffic will force an upgrade in the long-haul optical services to 10 Gbits/s. Currently, 10 Gbits/s is available over CAT6 copper up to about 50 m. It's still cheaper than fiber, but limited range will relegate it primary to data centers and server farms. Wavelength-division multiplexing also will make 10 Gbits/s on fiber practical and inexpensive. Look for those techniques to make 40-Gbit/s systems affordable in the near future.
  • Consumer electronics increasingly adopt wireless : A vast new market for wireless lies in home consumer electronics. It's already big in remote controls, and many homes feature wireless home networks. Wireless continues to find more applications in the home, though. Examples include stereo headsets, game controllers, home monitoring/control and security, and audio connections. Look for wireless video connections using fast Wi-Fi and UWB beginning this year. Consumers love wireless because it's easy to use, and there are no ugly wires to run and hide.
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