The Wi Of CES

Moving data will require significant infrastructure improvements; available wireless spectrum remains an issue.

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By Pallab Chatterjee
There has already been quite a bit written about the tablets, TVs and ultrabooks that consumed most of the floor space at this year’s CES show in Las Vegas. There was an underlying technology that was brought out at the show to bind these together—wireless.

As the proliferation of content consumption device continues, creating a connected network to get this media and data from point to point is becoming more of a challenge. The data sets—now rich with high-resolution images and video—are getting very large, which is presenting a problem both from a power point of view and from the perspective of the size of the pipe for ingesting data.

With the majority of new data-consuming devices being connected wirelessly and driving both the need for broadband and for handshake and connectivity for the “Internet of Things,” wired networks are moving to the high-performance, IT supportable, corporate applications only. This is making the main connectivity wireless. These wireless protocols fit into three bins: cellular network, small data networks, and full wireless networking and large-data-transfer connectivity.

Cellular 2G, 2.5G, 2.75G, 3G, 4G and 4G LTE systems have been shown at CES for years. This year, the data-oriented 4G LTE was center stage. Handsets were available from every supplier for the interface, and there were a couple of high-profile infrastructure suppliers. Alcatel-Lucent along with Renesas Mobile were both showing high-speed transmission equipment. While the performance of the units was quite high—upward of 112Gbps with the Renesas unit—the effectiveness in the field is limited by range. LTE is targeted at a two-kilometer radius from the tower, and Renesas reported a data rate of 98Gbps still at one kilometer in tests in real cities. However, the data connectivity and rate dropped off almost exponentially beyond that due to a number of issues, including signal obstruction from existing buildings and structures, which minimized the usable distance for large area coverage.

With the exception of new Bluetooth accessories targeted at tablet and smart phone users, the small data wireless network providers were showing production-ready and form factor-ready units that were introduced as prototypes in 2011. The Internet of Things is being dominated by these protocols, as the typical data sent is less than a 10K stream. Target markets include medical, home automation and security, smart appliances, lighting and convenience. While there is a tight race for the protocol of choice, Zigbee appears to still have the lead over Zwave and Bluetooth based on power and autonomous connectivity.
The large data side is filled with new groups and ideas all fighting over a couple of radio bands—900MHz, 2.4GHz, 5GHz and 60GHz. The fundamental goal of these groups is to get still pictures, audio and video from point A to point B. This has turned out to be a very big technical challenge as digital still pictures moved from 160×160 pixels to the mainstream 8Mpixels and high-end 18M+ pixel images. Audio also has not stayed still. Early media players were providing 10-bit, 22KHz, 2-channel sound with high compression. Today, home theater and audiophile sound feature 24 bit, 192KHz, 8-channel (7.1 surround) sound with minimal compression at playback time.

Video data has been the biggest challenge. The new high end is UHD, also known as 4K/2K. This is a 3096×2048 pixel display, with 60Hz refresh and 24-bit color planes, or 9,130,475,520bps (about 9Gbps) for a streaming data rate. The lotto machine created organization names that are addressing these applications, including WiFI, WiDi, WiSA, DLNA, WiHDMI. WiUSB, WiGig. WiPower (Qi), iWPC, WiHD, XWHD, and the MHL/MSL. These groups have wireless extensions in progress. At this time, the interoperability and cooperation between groups appears cordial but not very productive.