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The Gigabit Speed Smartphone?

Thu, 01/08/2009 - 9:37am
Amit Malhotra

Yes, Thanks to Millimeter Wave

The communications industry – including content owners, infrastructure developers and network service providers – has long promoted the vision of delivering content “on demand.” In this scenario, rich content such as movies, games and user-generated video can all be stored centrally and streamed to consumers instantly, anywhere and at any time. Several industry developments leading into 2009 raised consumer expectations about access to rich or high-definition (HD) content.  Network service providers today are deploying technologies – such as fiber-to-the-home on the wireline side and LTE on the wireless front – to deliver up to 100 Mbps of bandwidth. However, as consumers demand ever-increasing amounts of content, device manufacturers must seek out new radio technologies that provide quantum leaps in transfer data rates.

Amit Malhotra
By Amit Malhotra

One way to measure HD demand is to track growth of shipments of devices equipped with high definition multimedia interface (HDMI). From 2004-10, the CAGR is forecasted to be 78%, with more than 500 million devices including that interface by 2010. A number of regulatory and technological developments are accelerating this demand, with the most prominent example being the complete transition to digital HD broadcasting in the United States, Japan and Germany – a quorum of the world’s leading entertainment markets.

Most major consumer electronics developments over the past 12 months have focused on wireless technologies. Clearly, the biggest story in that timeframe has been Apple’s iPhone, which has single-handedly revolutionized wireless multimedia communication. It is no understatement to say that the company, which is already the world’s largest retailer in online entertainment and which has put the wireless communication industry on notice that it intends to take a leading position, has forced dramatic acceleration of innovation in the mobile ecosystem.

The Next Phase
As the demand side of online entertainment crosses a major inflection point, so too does the supply side. Network service providers will find that their large technology investments will quickly become inadequate to handle the types and volume of content that consumers will demand. And a raft of new device categories – principally in the mobile sector – will further excite interest in on-demand content.

Just as carriers today are turning to Wi-Fi as a means to alleviate congestion on their existing networks while still sustaining the customer experience, they will face a starker choice when confronted with the exponentially higher bandwidth requirements for HD. 60 GHz millimeter wave, or wireless transmission in the extremely high frequency band of 57-66 GHz, will provide the multi-gigabit speed needed to transport HD content at the edge of the network.

As networks evolve, so will subscriber devices. The iPhone is the tip of the iceberg. Future iterations of devices will include:

  • Notebook computers and mobile Internet devices enabled with always-on network connectivity. In order to mitigate network capacity constraints, service providers will set up kiosks with cached content at strategic locations (such as coffee shops), and drive subscribers to download that content via a local connection.
  • Dissociated screen devices. One of the biggest drags on customer experience with mobile phones is the size and resolution of screens. CE manufacturers will develop devices intended to connect to various external screens, including ones with embedded projectors.
  • Targeted devices for government and industry. Capturing and transmitting high-resolution images and video are becoming increasingly critical to addressing local and global security threats.

As HD becomes more popular or mission-critical, existing transmission technologies will become bottlenecks.

Millimeter Wave
Millimeter wave has been quietly delivering Gigabit-speed communications since the 1990s.  This technology has principally been implemented by carriers and enterprises for fiber replacement, in an expansive swath of radio frequency spectrum between 57-66 GHz, which is not dedicated to specific purposes in most major markets, and either has been or is becoming free to use without a license. With that much spectrum, existing millimeter wave systems are capable of throughput of 2.5 Gbps and more over a distance of approximately one mile, and the technology continues to evolve.

More recently, millimeter wave has been adapted by communications technology companies such as SiBEAM for use in CE devices, especially for cable-free transmission of content. Unlike most other wireless technologies, millimeter wave has the capacity to transmit uncompressed HD content, ensuring a smooth viewing experience even at 1080p resolution. Leading consumer electronics manufacturers are implementing a new standard called WirelessHD, on display at CES, for next-generation home A/V networks. The powerful throughput and elegant simplicity of its physical-layer characteristics mean that WirelessHD has much greater capacity to handle different types and volumes of traffic – including data in addition to its current focus on audio and video – than alternative technologies.

To streamline millimeter wave technology from industrial radio systems down to chipsets that CE companies can integrate into consumer devices, manufacturers such as SiBEAM have moved from compound semiconductors such as gallium arsenide to complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS). These manufacturers have evolved antenna technology as well, using smaller sizes that shorten the range and beam-forming techniques that address line-of-sight issues. Antenna size can be under 1mm since the wavelengths are much smaller at these higher frequencies.

As the first version of the WirelessHD standard has been in the market since early 2008, the market can expect semiconductor manufacturers to introduce a version for portable devices in late 2009.

In his 12 years in the wireless industry, Malhotra has had marketing responsibility for cellular, WiMAX, Wi-Fi, mesh and millimeter wave services and technologies.

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