The wireless wave rushes in
Last Updated January 9, 2008
By Peter Nowak
Perhaps the biggest trend at this year's annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is the pervasiveness of wireless gadgets. From cellphones that connect to car stereos to televisions and set-top boxes that can access photos, music and movies sitting on the home computer, wireless connectivity seems to have really hit the big time this year.
Karen Hanley, senior marketing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance — which certifies devices that use the technology — discussed the ubiquity of wireless devices with CBCNews.ca.It seems like wireless devices have absolutely exploded this year.
Year-over-year from 2006 to 2007, Wi-Fi has grown 40 per cent. We track that based on a proxy of chipset shipments. There were 300 million of those shipped last year and they are going into a growing diversity of products. The traditional application of the laptop has about 90 per cent of them shipped with Wi-Fi.
There's also a consistent but thin layer of deployment by municipalities.
There's an explosion in two major areas — one is consumer electronics and the other is in converged devices, or cellphones. MP3 players, gaming consoles, televisions and stereos — the advent of small packaging and low power dissipation is making that possible. If you want to be connected, Wi-Fi is the way to go.
In the cellphone, there are now about 100 handsets that we have certified. We've tested these products to ensure that products from one company will talk to the products of another company, or basic interoperability. We also check rigorously to make sure they are secure.
The first step in the growth of that market was the building of the handsets. In most markets, it's the carrier saying, "This is what you can use on my network."
The use of Wi-Fi on a cellphone is probably the best example of blending the best of two technologies. Cellular isn't the best-performing technology but what it's really good at is roaming. Wi-Fi is a local technology that is more about performance in a given area.
The new next-generation of the technology — called "n" — is doubling that distance and quadrupling that performance. Cellular is low performance, great roaming. Wi-Fi is local coverage but very high performance. So what you see in that cellphone is the best of both worlds. For the user, if you're in an area that doesn't get good cellular performance, you can switch over to a Wi-Fi network.
For the carriers, a growing number of them are starting to recognize this is the best way to manage their spectrum. They've paid enormous amounts of money for the licensed spectrum and one, they can keep the user happier with better performance and make them less likelier to switch to another carrier and two, they can manage their spectrum so that when I'm off on a Wi-Fi network having a better experience, they can resell my minutes without having to add infrastructure. It's a win-win all around.
Will Wi-Fi ever get to the point where it can emulate the roaming capability of cellular?
Wi-Fi is happening more at walking speed. It's primarily a local technology, but what it has done is increase that footprint. If you think about "n," that's basically a football field in terms of the difference of its range.
But suppose you had two hotspots, whether they're on "n" or an earlier standard, could it be possible that if you walked out of one and into another, the connection switches over automatically without the user doing anything?
It's possible now. If you're in a building now and you lose your connection, it can automatically switch to the next one. It can happen behind the scenes. But again, we say Wi-Fi is walking speed while cellular is driving speed. Not that we say you drive and talk on your cellphone!
You say shipments of Wi-Fi chips have increased 40 per cent over the past year. How does that compare with previous years? If this year's CES is any indication, it would seem that Wi-Fi-enabled devices such as TVs and stereos are ramping up quickly.
It's pretty consistent. We're looking at about a billion units in 2011. It's not a hockey stick kind of growth that would be impractical; it's been nice and steady.
How much better has Wi-Fi gotten in non-laptop devices?
TV is kind of that extreme usage example, where you've got 1080p (high definition) moving large amounts of data. "n" can do that five times faster so we really expect that to enable a lot of new applications. We started certifying devices with "n" in June 2007.
Are the manufacturers of these living room media extenders and televisions using "n"?
Many of them are, yes.
The "n" (or 802.11n) standard has yet to be ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. What's the status there?
We started certifying products based on the draft, which was approved in March 2007. We really would have preferred to wait until the IEEE was done but last year the industry put out about 30 million "n" pieces of equipment and we felt it was necessary to get that seal of approval available. Our plan is to update our technical program when the IEEE is done. The basics on performance and range are there, it'll just be the bells and whistles that are added.
When is the ratification expected?
We're projecting mid-09, but they may adjust that timetable.
Is there any area that Wi-Fi has yet to touch?
This new "n" chip can be retrofitted and inserted into devices, making them Wi-Fi when they weren't before. It's pretty cool technology.
Is WiMax friend or foe?
Friend, absolutely. The technologies are very complementary. It's confusing because of the name — WiMax means it must be better than Wi-Fi. WiMax is much more of a replacement for the cable coming into the premises or as a metropolitan area technology. It helps Wi-Fi because it means the speed of the internet connection is higher coming into that premises.
So if WiMax comes into the home and connects to a router, then all the Wi-Fi devices in the home connect to that router, could you not just cut out the middle man and have all the devices connect directly to WiMax?
You get into some power issues. Sending a radio signal a couple miles takes a lot of power, and there isn't much [power in a cellphone.] So it's managing the different radio technologies most efficiently. WiMax is also a licensed technology, which means people buy the rights to those airwaves. Wi-Fi is unlicensed, which means it's very inexpensive. Anyone can go and start their own Wi-Fi network at home.
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