Electronic Design
Wireless Data Tsunami Drives Comm Development

Wireless Data Tsunami Drives Comm Development

Wireless technology is more than 110 years old, with Marconi, Tesla, and Popov conducting their earliest experiements in the 1890s. Yet the changes expected in the next decade will dwarf what has happened over the past century, particularly in two key areas: cell phones and short-range networking.

The Rise Of The Smart Phone
The cellular business dominates the wireless sector. With well over a billion new handsets sold each year and the constant upgrading of the hundreds of thousands of basestations worldwide, cellular means big bucks for everyone. And it’s the most visible part of wireless since nearly everyone now has a mobile phone. The impact is huge. There are two main stories here: smart phones and the upcoming 4G revolution.

First, iSuppli reports that by the end of 2010, subscriptions for wireless services exceeded 5 billion. That represents 74.5% of the world’s population. Penetration varies from only 50% in Africa to 157.6% in developed countries, where many people own multiple phones and subscriptions for travel and different devices (see “The Top 10 Wireless Trends To Expect In 2011”).

“Wireless communications now has spread to every nation, every age, and every income level, becoming a basic staple like food, clothing, and shelter. Wireless now represents the biggest stage that any technology market has ever played on,” says Jagdish Rebello, principal wireless analyst at iSuppli.

ABI Research indicates that by the end of 2010, handset sales totaled 1.34 billion, and growth should continue through 2015 with 1.7 billion handsets sold. Driving all this is the smart phone, the all-in-one device that makes phone calls, texts, accesses the Internet, takes photos and videos, plays music, navigates by GPS, and runs the thousands of new applications that have come out of nowhere.

About 19% of all handset sales as of the second quarter of last year were smart phones with growth of more than 50% from the previous time in 2009, ABI Research estimates.

Driving the smart-phone explosion are the lower prices and wide availability of 3G and 4G data services. The sky-high cost of most data plans is still probably restricting growth. Another driver is apps. With so many interesting software applications available for the best sellers, subscribers are buying platforms that give them access to these many interesting programs.

On The Market
RIM’s BlackBerry is still the number-one smart phone with an estimated 43% share, according to Canalys, a mobile-phone consulting company. Apple’s iPhone is second with 21.3%. Android phones are up to number three at this point with an 18.9% share. Microsoft is at 7.3%. All the other phones with different operating systems (OSs) are way down the list, like Nokia/Symbian at 3.3%.

Strategy Analytics has a different view of smart-phone sales, placing Nokia at number one with 34.4%, Apple at number two with 18.3%, RIM at third at 16.1%, and all the others at 31.3%. Nevertheless, it is clear who the leaders are.

Apple’s share could jump considerably if it lets Verizon sell a CDMA or Long-Term Evoltion (LTE) version of the iPhone this year. In any case, keep in mind that these figures are just a snapshot in time as growth continues and share values change almost daily.

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The top five handset vendors according to IDC are Nokia with a 32.4% share, Samsung with 21%, LG with 8.3%, Apple with 4.1%, and RIM at 3.6%. The rest of the handset manufacturers make up the remaining 30.5%, including HTC, the Chinese company that makes the Sprint/Clearwire 4G EVO smart phone (Fig. 1).

Apps are playing a key part in the phenomenonal growth of the smart phone. These small, cheap or free programs are being built for and bought by iPhone and Android phone users by the millions. Apple now has more than 260,000 apps, and Google has well over 100,000 for Android phones.

All of the other smart-phone vendors like Nokia and RIM are promoting their apps as well. Even Amazon recently launched an app store for Android apps, seriously ticking off Google. The apps figures vary daily, but they are popular.

Research2guidance, a market research firm in Berlin, pins the 2010 sales of apps at just over $2 billion. The company also expects the market to reach $15 billion by 2013. The apps user base is about 300 million as of the end of 2010, and it should top 1 billion users by 2013.

While there are many categories of apps, games top the lists in popularity. Other apps focus on news and weather, maps and navigation, social networking, and music. And if you can’t get what you want right now, just wait. But with this movement comes the threat of massive hacking. Apps are an ideal way to promulgate malicious code targeting users’ money, identity, and privacy.

Security is becoming a core issue for the new 4G networks and new smart phones. Vendors like F-Secure, Intel’s McAfee, and Juniper are on that problem. Surely, Apple and Google also are going to have to be vigilant to vet apps more thoroughly to minimize potential mischievousness and criminality.

4G Services, Infrastructure
The other big news in the cellular world is the imminent arrival of 4G technology, bringing faster networks that will open the door to even more smart-phone applications and uses. Currently, we are using the third generation (3G) of the mobile network.

3G means phone calls plus high-speed data that provides Internet access, e-mail, and other services like video. But the 3G networks are limited in speed to several megabits per second. That’s a function of the technology limitations as well as the physics of wireless.

Today we have WCDMA and HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) and several versions of EV-DO cdma2000 that can provide speeds up to about 5 to 7 Mbits/s under the right conditions, whereas more common speeds run from 400 kbits/s to a few megabits per second. But the 4G technologies—Long-Term Evolution (LTE), WiMAX, and some advanced versions of HSPA+—are here and are gradually rolling out.

Both LTE and WiMAX are based on orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) technology in wide 5-, 10-, and 20-MHz channels. They are strictly IP-based (Internet Protcol) or packet-based, unlike the current circuit switched technologies of the existing cellular network.

And believe it or not, voice calls won’t travel over the LTE or WiMAX networks. They will still rely on existing cellular technologies like GSM and CDMA. All 4G phones will be multimode as well as multiband and will support all the older technologies to ensure voice service and a connection in locations where 4G service is not available.

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LTE is supposed to deliver up to 100-Mbit/s downloads and 50-Mbit/s uploads. But in real mobile performance, look for rates significantly less than that but certainly faster than current 3G rates. Clearwire claims 3 to 6 Mbits/s with bursts to 10 Mbits/s on its WiMAX network. Verizon claims 5 to12 Mbits/s in its new LTE system. Both are significantly faster than any current 3G coverage but certainly not near the 100-Mbit/s potential.

Sprint and Clearwire were the first to roll out their 4G WiMAX services in the 2.5-GHz spectrum. These services are available in 68 cities today and more are on the way. They are selling USB dongles as well as the hot HTC 4G EVO smart phone. It will be interesting to see if Clearwire and Sprint stay with WiMAX or if they will eventually jump to LTE with all the other carriers. Most of their basestations could no doubt be easily upgraded to LTE since the two technologies are so similar.

As for LTE, MetroPCS was the first with service in Las Vegas and Dallas. Los Angeles and New York are expected to come online in 2011. Most of these early 4G services are data only, of course, with USB dongles. Verizon was next to implement LTE in the U.S. It launched in December in 38 cities using the new 700-MHz spectrum. The initial service uses USB dongle modems with LTE handsets coming later this year.

Verizon has run the course with its cdma2000/EV-DO technology, which is at its data speed limits, so an early LTE deployment is essential to maintaining a leadership position. AT&T won’t launch LTE until sometime later in 2011. T-Mobile is waiting on LTE and selling its most recent HSPA+ networks as 4G (see “Controversy Brews Over 4G’s Definition”). Look for LTE to be a long, slow process of introduction as handsets become available, as the carriers can afford it, and as they upgrade their backhaul with fiber and faster microwave to handle the 4G data tidal wave.

Short-Range Wireless
Wi-Fi or IEEE 802.11 wireless local-area networking (WLAN) continues its popularity with the ongoing rollout of 802.11n chips, modems, and routers. With a solid base of 11n access points, the next move is more multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) to further improve data speeds as well as range and reliability. Routers and access points are moving from two-antenna systems to three-antenna and four-antenna systems. Laptop manufacturers are struggling with getting more than two Wi-Fi antennas inside.

For years, Wi-Fi has attempted to become a factor in video distribution throughout the home. Limited range and speed have kept it back while wired technologies like MOCA and HomePNA seem to dominate. But now with new 4-by-4 MIMO chips like those from Quantenna, rates and reliability have reached a point of full acceptance by a growing number of IPTV service providers.

The Quantenna chips (Fig. 2) can deliver from 100 to 150 Mbits/s reliably at a range up to 150 feet, even through walls. Using the 40-MHz bandwidth in the 5-GHz industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) frequency bands as well as beamforming, it has become possible to stream video throughout the home reliably.

Quantenna CEO David French believes that as the data rates coming into homes from cable and IPTV providers reach 50 and 100 Mbits/s, it will be ever more important for the networks inside the home to keep pace. That is particularly true with video streaming, video on demand (VOD) from Netflix and Hulu, and other video services like multiuser gaming as they grow in popularity.

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When the forthcoming 60-GHz wireless technologies become available, it will be possible to stream video uncompressed. But the range will essentially be limited to one room. A direct point-to-point link using 60 GHz will make a good HDMI cable replacement to complement the lower-band Wi-Fi with full-home coverage.

The big news with 802.11wireless is the two new standards for even higher speeds. The IEEE 802.11ac standard, which may be finalized late in 2011 or early 2012, is designed to operate in the 5-GHz band where 802.11a is now. It will use wider-bandwidth channels of 40, 80, or even 160 MHz to achieve rates up to 1 Gbit/s at a range of 10 m.

Channel bonding that uses two or more of the available standard 20-MHz 11a channels will be a feature as well. 802.11ac may also use multiple-user or MU-MIMO, which uses multiple antennas for both transmit and receive at each end of the link to meet the speed and range targets.

Another version, 802.11ad, operates in the unlicensed 60-GHz band. Another method called WiGig operates in essentially the same way. The standard will use four 2.16-GHz wide channels to achieve a data rate up to 7 Gbits/s. MU-MIMO will be used as well. Beamforming and steering will be part of the standard to achieve higher gains and longer range. Don’t look for this standard until 2013 or beyond, though.

Other technologies are also vying for this short-range, high-speed territory. These include the Wireless Home Digital Interface (WHDI), which is based on a technology developed by Amimon. It uses a 5-by-4 MIMO arrangement to achieve data rates to 3 Gbits/s in 40-MHz channels in the 5-GHz band.

Another 60-GHz standard from the WirelessHD Consortium proposes to achieve 10 Gbytes/s max over 10 m. Then there’s the Ultra-Wdeband (UWB) technology from the WiMedia Alliance and the USB Implementer’s Forum. It has been around for several years and is used mainly for video transfer, though it seems to be a fading technology.

A new Wi-Fi feature that should show major interest and growth is Wi-Fi Direct. This is the Wi-Fi Alliance’s add-on to the standard that lets Wi-Fi-enabled devices talk to one another directly without going through an access point. It is ideal for Wi-Fi-enabled consumer devices for sharing photos and other content, synching, printing, and gaming. Vendors like Broadcom are implementing the standard in their chips, which should be showing up in laptops and cell phones this year.

Another interesting development is Wi-Fi in cars. Research firm iSuppli projects that automotive OEM shipments of in-vehicle Wi-Fi will rise to 7.2 million by 2017. Wi-Fi is a desirable addition to car electronics these days, and an in-vehicle hotspot can be implemented with an owner’s existing USB wireless broadband modem. It’s useful for sure, but it’s also one more driving distraction.

Overall, the Wi-Fi market continues to grow as the many 802.11b/g networks upgrade to the 802.11n standards. This same trend includes other short-range wireless technologies including Bluetooth, ZigBee/802.15.4, and UWB. ABI Research reported a 20% increase in these technologies from 2009 to 2010. Bluetooth still leads the pack volume-wise, with Wi-Fi second.

Despite its age, now a decade, the ZigBee IEEE 802.15.4 wireless standard has not found its real niche until now. The whole Smart Energy/Smart Grid movement has provided the funding and the marketplace for these short-range technologies. Home-area networking (HAN) companies are adopting it, as are meter manufacturers and utilities that will use it to collect usage data.

Research company In-Stat says that ZigBee chip and module shipments should exceed $750 million by 2014. Aggressive growth isn’t expected until 2015 and later. In the meantime, ZigBee’s greatest use is in industrial monitoring and control where growth is modest

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