WIRELESS connectivity is the order of the day and Intel Corp is not one to be left out of the wireless buzz.
“Over the next decade, the majority of the world will communicate wirelessly,” said Pat Gelsinger, Intel senior vice-president and chief technology officer.
The chipmaker said it has what it takes to ride the next wireless wave using its “adaptive” wireless technologies.
Its research in adaptive modulation technique would allow it to modulate radio waves according to the fluctuating radio signal strength, he said.
This was not done before because it would require heavy processing which is only now possible.
“The algorithms to do this are complex. Complex means MIPS. MIPS means Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law is allowing us to apply techniques that have been considered for a long time and have now become practical for the first time,” he said.
Moore’s Law predicts that the number of transistors in a chip will double every 12-18 months, which helps increase the MIPS or millions of instructions per second a chip can handle.
The advantage of adaptive modulation technique is that it can double data throughput without any upgrade in hardware, said Gelsinger.
Intel also found that data traffic in a wireless network could be easily brought to a crawl by a few weak connections.
For instance, if a computer at the boundary of a wireless network connects with a poor signal due to its distance, it will affect even the data transfer rate of computers with good signal strengths.
This is because the server would be forced to serve data multiple times to the computer with the weak signal, thereby reducing the amount of time it has for computers with a good connection.
Intel plans to attack this problem in two ways; the more simple solution reduces the idle time between each sending of data to computers so more data is sent at any given time.
The second solution is more revolutionary; the wireless network is turned into a mesh network that does not require the server to connect to computers at the edge of networks directly but through other computers.
In other words, other computers in the wireless network would be forced to relay signals to computers far away from the server, which is sort of like passing the baton.
This way, the server would be able to maintain good signal strength even with computers far away from it, said Gelsinger.
The more the merrier
Two methods to increase signal strength of a wireless connection is to build bigger antennas and increase the power to it.
But both solutions are not ideal for notebooks, because notebooks are small and power-starved.
This has forced Intel to work on Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) technology that relies on increasing the number of antennas to increase signal strength, which has produced even better results, said Gelsinger.
A notebook with four antennas connected to a server with four antennas achieves a signal strength that cannot be matched by a one-to-one antenna connection even if the power was multiplied by a million times, he claimed.
Data throughput achieved by multiple antennas is more or less the data throughput multiplied by the number of antennas, and it is easy to see how this would result in a better data throughput than to increase the power to it, he said.
Also, the data throughput would be steadier when there are more antennas as the signal strength would not be dependent on a single antenna.
Reliability also increases by “the product of the number of antennas” making a 4 by 4 system 16 times more reliable, explained Gelsinger.
“We’re going to drive MIMO into every product we build and every platform we build. Laptops in the future will have multiple antennas built directly into the LCD,” Gelsinger said.
And since antennas are cheap, Intel practically expects to “litter” the back of devices with MIMO antennas, he said.
“In a PDA maybe we could put two or three antennas, in a cellular phone maybe two antennas,” he said.
Next, Intel is trying to replace as much as possible the analogue components that make up the radio with digital components, he said.
Intel has successfully developed core radio components using its 0.18micron process technology, including the world’s fastest voltage controlled oscillator operating at speeds greater than 75GHz, he said. The radio oscillator determines the frequency at which signals are transmitted and received.
By building these and other analogue radio components with a digital manufacturing process, Intel aims to lower the cost of adding wireless capabilities to all future products, said Gelsinger.
“And as we minimise the amount of analogue logic circuits that we need to put on our wireless devices to just a few transistors, we are fully able to harness the power of digital technologies and keep shrinking its size,” he said.
The Universal Communicator thought of by Intel is not as versatile as the one in Star Trek, but it will communicate with another device transparently while also adapting to the dynamic needs of the user.
“In the future, all computers will communicate and all communication devices will compute. To make that happen, we need transparent communications. We need to make communications seamless, integrated and invisible,” said Gelsinger.
Intel’s prototype Universal Communicator understands three main wireless standards – WiFi, GSM and GPRS – and is able switch between the three standards seamlessly without user interference when the user passes from one network coverage to another, he said.
The Universal Communicator runs on Intel’s upcoming XScale Bulverde processor that has built-in support for video and still pictures, and also packs an SD slot for memory expansion (see sidebar).
At IDF, Intel demonstrated how the prototype was able to hold on to a wireless connection even though it lost video as it passed from WiFi to GSM and regained video again when it entered an area with GPRS connection.
Intel has no plans to mass market its Universal Communicator as the prototype was designed merely for research purposes. Gelsinger added that he hopes that the design would be adopted by others in the industry.
Intel said it is also playing a significant role in the development of 802.11n, the next-generation WiFi technology that would have significantly higher throughput, allowing Network Admins and Techs to correctly piece together WiFi Heatmaps and tracking solutions for wireless devices.
Not much is known about the specifics of the 802.11n except that it would transmit data at speeds many times faster than current standards.
Currently the most popular and widely used standard is the 802.11b which uses the 2.4GHz band and transmits data at up to 11Mbps.
Another standard, the 802.11a, which uses the 5GHz band and transmits data at speeds of up to 54Mbps is not so widely used here.
The 802.11g standard which uses the 2.4GHz band and can transmit data at speeds of up to 54Mbps, was just recently approved and is backward compatible with 802.11b although at the lower speed of 11Mbps.
Eric Mentzer, Intel vice-president and Intel Communications Group chief technology officer, said that its Centrino notebooks will carry the 802.11b/g wireless networking component before the end of this year.
Centrino notebooks – which feature Intel’s Pentium-M processor, chipsets and network component – will feature 802.11a/b/g wireless support in the first half of next year.
“Intel believes that in the future, ubiquitous, wireless communication will be enabled through the deployment of industry standards and will be powered by Intel silicon and technology building blocks,” said Gelsinger.
The last mile
Another wireless technology that Intel is pushing for is 802.16a, which is expected to be the alternative to using copper-cable as the last-mile connection to homes and businesses.
“Wireless technologies have a key role to play everywhere, particularly in countries where they don’t have an installed infrastructure,” said Gelsinger.
The 802.16a standard is a wireless metropolitan area network (MAN) technology that will also help link hotspots to the Internet.
It can cover an area as wide as 50km without the need for direct line of sight, and provide shared data rates of up to 70Mbps. A single 802.16a base station should be enough to service 60 businesses and hundreds of homes.
Intel said it has signed agreements with leading OEMs in broadband wireless access equipment to deliver low-cost WiMAX-certified equipment based on 802.16a in the second half of 2004.
“The ultimate vision that Intel has is that we want to make wireless the access technology. Simply put, no more copper,” said Gelsinger.