Tri-wireless roaming gets kick-start
MANHASSET, N.Y. Texas Instruments Inc.'s demonstration of an integrated Wi-Fi, cellular and Bluetooth personal digital assistant captured one of the overriding themes of last week's CTIA conference in New Orleans: Wi-Fi-to cellular roaming. However, TI also opened a veritable Pandora's box of technical and marketing questions.
Given the pervasiveness of cellular technology and the rise of Wi-Fi hotspots, TI's Wanda concept design proved a nice fit with numerous wireless-carrier announcements at CTIA. Collectively, the introductions appear to put to rest many of the disagreements during the past two years over the level of wireless integration that can be delivered in a single handset.
But stubborn technical questions of power consumption, coexistence and footprint for such a triad solution may not be easily laid to rest. And the market debates go to even more fundamental issues concerning cost, carriers' acceptance of Wi-Fi as a workable complement to their wide-area voice-and-data networks, and the true viability of Bluetooth. Ongoing interoperability problems have put that short-range wireless technology in the shadow of low-cost Wi-Fi.
Wanda, which combines a GSM/GPRS radio with 802.11b wireless-LAN and Bluetooth connectivity, symbolizes a trade-off among power, price and performance, said Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research (Tiburon, Calif.).
"The big players like TI, STMicro and Intel are making their bets on multifunctional high-performance parts that are expensive to design and build-partially because they can, and partially because they believe it's worth it to take the long view," Peddie said. That long view incorporates the belief that Moore's Law will lower the cost over time.
Moreover, TI's triple-theat PDA could hail the commoditization of wireless, said Craig Mathias, principal at the Farpoint Group (Ashland, Mass.). "The real risk now has turned to your ability to market and support, vs. engineer and manufacture. As an engineer this saddens me, but it's typical of what happens in a maturing market," Mathias said.
TI is indeed betting on advanced processes to lower both power and costs. Introduced during the opening keynote by Tom Engibous, TI's chairman, president and CEO, Wanda incorporates a low-power wireless-LAN chip set that cuts the standby current of a WLAN solution from a typical 40 milliamps to 3 mA, said Matt Kurtz of TI's WLAN product-marketing group. The design relies on techniques such as reducing the number of polls used to test network availability and increasing the overall sleep time by rapid on/off cycling when those polling requests are necessary.
The company is also aggressively tackling leakage current by means of both process technology and design techniques, said Richard Kerslake, director of the wireless-terminals business unit at TI's Wireless Computing group.
While Kerslake was able to demonstrate the GSM/GPRS and Bluetooth capabilities at CTIA, Wanda's 802.11b connection was a no-go because of the unavailability of working drivers. Kerslake expects those to be ready "in a few weeks." The PocketPC device is based on the company's Omap multimedia system platform.
The Wanda design unites a GSM/GPRS radio with IEEE 802.11b and Bluetooth connectivity.
Many companies have spent years tackling the coexistence issues surrounding 802.11b and Bluetooth radios, both of which operate at 2.45 GHz: 802.11b uses direct-sequence spread-spectrum technology and Bluetooth, frequency hopping. Mobilian Corp., for example, took almost three years and $70 million to lick the problem.
"The issue is minimizing the interference that occurs when both systems are operated in such close proximity in a single device," said Jim Lansford, vice president of business development at Mobilian. "It requires robust, interference-tolerant system designs."
TI would not comment on how it tackled coexistence, other than to say Wanda will be the first to use a new solution that enables 802.11 to manage Bluetooth traffic and eliminate the problems associated with overlapping transmissions. Full details will be disclosed in the next few months, a company spokesperson said.
But for Bluetooth, the problem goes beyond coexistence, to existence. Plagued by profile interoperability issues (see story, page 16), delayed introductions, higher-than-expected costs (Ericsson's headset sells for $179) and competition from low-power, low-cost Wi-Fi solutions, the technology is at a crossroads. Work now being done by the IEEE 802.15.3 and .3a Task Group on low-power, low-cost, high-speed air interfaces further clouds Bluetooth's prospects.
"It'll not have much impact," said Farpoint Group's Mathias. "About 70 percent of the Bluetooth market is headsets, where interoperability isn't an issue." Mathias alluded to companies like Aura Communications and its modulated magnetic-field technology as a much more interesting approach for headsets. He predicted an escalation of 802.11 integration into mobile devices by the fall, but the question then becomes, which standard-802.11a, b or g?
Atheros Communications president Rich Redelfs says the obvious answer is "a." Its higher rates (54 Mbits/second, vs. 11 Mbits/s) will greatly decrease a system's overall on-time and allow a quick return to sleep mode.
Wanda uses 802.11b, relying on TI's experience with that technology to lower cost and simplify integration.
Companies like GTRAN Wireless have pushed 802.11b-CDMA integration. Their mantra was echoed at CTIA when Verizon announced it would roll out a CDMA 1xEV-DO service at 2.4 Mbits/s for enterprise customers and complement it with Wi-Fi hotspot access through Wayport Inc.
The 1xEV-DO service will start in the third quarter in Washington and San Diego, using equipment supplied by Lucent and Nortel, respectively. "We're used to operating on the basis that we'd supply the service and they'd figure out how to use it. That's not how it should be done," said Dick Lynch, Verizon's executive vice president and chief technical officer. Instead, Lynch said, Verizon will work to offer ubiquitous high-speed wireless access with enterprise-oriented services such as virtual private networks and single-point authentication. Fees will appear on a single Verizon bill, he said.
Like Verizon, almost every carrier now has some kind of Wi-Fi strategy. In the United States, T-Mobile has acquired the assets of defunct Mobilestar, Ericsson is collaborating with Proxim and Agere, and AT&T is working with Intel and IBM-all in an attempt to achieve seamless broadband access.
"My theory is that the public wireless-LAN access market will be owned by carriers, because they already own the really expensive parts of it-namely, marketing, support and billing," said Mathias. The Farpoint analyst also sees evidence that Wi-Fi's success has delayed the deployment of third-generation cellular services. "We now won't see a critical mass of 3G UMTS and 3xRTT in Japan until later this year and early next year," he said. "Europe will be next year or the following year. And not in the U.S. until 2006."
Roaming among the various types of networks has remained a major bone of contention because of security and reliability issues, as well as the problem of session maintenance during hand-off. Companies such as Birdstep Technology, with its Mobile IP solution, continue to make deals, however. Birdstep's latest move was a demonstration on Intel Corp.'s Centrino platform for laptops.
CTIA was also replete with mobility, security and billing solutions. Nomadix partnered with inCode Telecom to demonstrate an offering that would allow a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop to connect to a hotspot, undergo authentication and tally the cost on an existing cell phone account.
Going further, Mobility Network Systems (MNS) and Nortel Networks demonstrated the MNS IP-based Radio Access Network solution. It integrates Wi-Fi and GSM/GPRS networks and services by core-coupling the MNS product to Nortel's Univity Gateway GPRS Support Node. The two companies have linked up to jointly market public WLAN solutions to mobile operators.
"What we see this year is GPRS/Wi-FI connectivity using Wi-Fi-enabled mobile PCs," said Bob Conner, vice president of product marketing at MNS. "Then, starting this fall and next year, you'll see Wi-Fienabled PDAs emerging with larger screens [and] with lower power consumption." Conner believes that "this will have a bigger impact than people realize. It will completely change the usage model."