Electronic Design

Wireless Everywhere Still Needs To Work Out The Kinks

If you’ve ever seen the Dead Zone commercials from Verizon Wireless, you realize that there is some truth to the statement that wireless everywhere is still working out the kinks. My favorite is the one where a young couple is purchasing the “the old Miller place—in spite of what happened there,” according to an older woman who walks up to the couple as they’re moving in. “Oh, they didn’t tell you,” she says, “It’s a dead zone.” Of course, the couple isn’t worried since they have the Verizon Network already working for them. If you haven’t seen it, go here. I can relate to this commercial, since I also have a dead zone in my house.

I found out about it when I purchased my first cell phone from Sprint many years ago. Although the Sprint store is only five minutes from home, the phone wouldn’t work in my personal dead zone—my family room. As soon as I switched to Verizon, the problem disappeared, or so I thought.

When I hooked up my first Wi-Fi network, an 802.11b wireless router in my basement, my wife and I were free to work in the firstfloor kitchen and living room, but the family room was a no-no. When 802.11g routers hit the market, I upgraded with the hope of extending my wireless connections not only to the dreaded family room, but also to the second floor, which was another dead zone as far as Wi-Fi was concerned. That didn’t help either.

I haven’t yet upgraded to an 802.11n router, which has the potential to bring Wi-Fi access to the entire house. This standard still isn’t ratified, though lots of products are on the market. For an interesting look at the status of all the 802.11 standards in spreadsheet form, point your browser here. I guess I could purchase a signal booster for my current Wi- Fi router, but I’m not certain how my wife would react to me setting up an indoor antenna in the corner of the family room. Somehow, I doubt it would go with the rest of the décor, and I’m sure she would let me know it. They’re available for about $125, so it’s not a big investment. But I’m not certain if it would cover the entire house or even work at all.

When my wife’s company issued her a Sprint AirCard, she naturally thought she could move about the house with impunity, able to connect from anywhere. Unbelievably enough, the AirCard doesn’t work any better than the Wi-Fi system we have in place right now. One might think we’ve erected a metal mesh around that infamous family room.

I’m starting to wonder if we’ll ever be able to sell our house, especially if our neighbors find out about the problems we’re having. I suppose the answer to this particular challenge is to switch to Verizon, which is unlikely since the AirCard is company-issued, or purchase a femtocell for our home.

A femtocell is, of course, a small cellular basestation that you can set up right in your home. It connects to the service provider’s network via a broadband connection. (For more, see “Myriad Infrastructure Options Bombard Femtocell Design,” p. 43. Or for a video demonstration of a CDMA basestation from AirWalk Communications, go to http:// electronicdesign.com/shows/ctia2008/) When I tried to look up the price of one of these units on Google, the number one result was the Wikipedia entry—a bad sign. Even worse, there weren’t any ads at the top of the page.

I searched the Best Buy and Circuit City sites, but got “no matches found” for femtocells. So, I’ll have to wait and see. Even if femtocells become readily available, there’s still the issue of where to mount them in your home.

Mobile WiMAX was supposed to launch and launch big in 2008. In fact, at the International Consumer Electronics Show in January, I spoke with a representative from one of the WiMAX chip makers. He agreed that 2008 would be the year for WiMAX. However, he didn’t seem all that enthusiastic as he was talking to me. I’m ready to sign up for mobile WiMAX this year and expect that many of you are as well.

Right now, mobile WiMAX isn’t looking good, at least in this country. At this year’s CTIA conference, a spokesperson for Sprint said that the company would delay the commercial debut of its Xohm WiMAX service (www.xohm.com). One hope for deployment on a local level comes from a company called NextPhase Wireless. Last month, it announced that it will launch a licensed 802.16e mobile WiMAX network, serving parts of New Jersey and Philadelphia in the third quarter of 2008. We’ll see.

On a national level, it looks like this technology won’t have a significant rollout for at least another year. Would the Sprint Xohm service have been able to defeat the dead zone in my house? Perhaps we’ll never know.

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