Intel Details Radio Roadmap

On the eve of its developer forum, the chip maker talks about its plans to develop radios that can reconfigure themselves to tap available spectrum.

SAN JOSE, Calif.—Intel Corp.s dreams of a "radio free Intel" are still alive, although company officials acknowledged the path to that goal will be an arduous one.

In a preview of this weeks Intel Developer Forum here, officials with Intels R&D team briefed reporters on its plans to develop radios that are intelligent enough to reconfigure themselves to take advantage of the available spectrum.

In fact, Intel has developed a working array of processors that can process whatever wireless algorithms the company can throw at it, Steve Pawlowski, an Intel fellow and co-director of Intels Communications and Interconnect Labs, said in a presentation Monday morning. But to put it into production will require a team of lawyers as well as scientists.

Pushing new products to market in the wireless space requires first jumping over a series of technological and legal hurdles. Before a product can be developed, a company or industry must negotiate spectrum with the Federal Communications Commission and similar bodies around the world. Only then may products be developed, refined and eventually sold into the marketplace.

"Spectrum policy is on the threshold of fundamental change," Pawlowski said, noting that the current format hasnt changed "since Marconi."

Current regulations forbid new technologies from using unallocated or unlicensed wireless spectra, Pawlowski said. On the other hand, regulatory committees are considering permitting wireless devices to use unlicensed spectrum if they dont radiate over 41 dB of signal strength.

In another scenario, devices might be granted access to frequencies normally allocated for emergency services, which could kick off the wireless services if an emergency arose. But the device would need to "know" the available spectrum, Pawlowski pointed out. One risk was that the device could be used near a countrys border, where it might trample on the frequency used by another country. In that case, the device would either have to have GPS services installed or be able to sniff the physical IPs of the access points, he said.

Intel is currently working on both the 802.15 standards as well as "UWB" or ultrawideband technologies, which uses a broad swath of frequency to communicate data. While UWB holds the promise of high data rates—from 100Mbps upward to 200Mbps and above—the bandwidth drops dramatically as a function of distance. At 10 meters, for example, data rates can be a fifth or a sixth of what they might be at close proximity, Pawlowski said.

The 802.15 technology is a more immediate goal. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel and other companies are meeting in Singapore this week to hammer out the proposed frequencies the technology will use: frequencies of 3.1 to 4.9 GHz for first-generation products, with 4.9 to 6.0 GHz designated for second-generation devices. An additional range of spectrum, from 6.1 to 10.6 GHz, would be allocated for third-generation devices or other purposes.

Building the devices will pose its own set of challenges, according to Pawlowski. Wireless devices typically contain digital-signal processors, which process and reprocess the small number of lines of code that embody the wireless algorithms. However, while flexible, DSPs consume much more power than a fixed-function device such as an embedded microprocessor.

For testing purposes, Intel developed a scalable mesh of heterogeneous, reconfigurable 486 processors, Pawlowski said. The problem, however, is that the technology still needs three separate radios, which is too expensive, he said.

Eventually, Intel will have to develop a radio that can recognize what protocols and frequencies it can access, and have the ability to reconfigure itself to access them—the "Radio Free Intel" vision. Intels next step will be moving the analog-to-digital conversion, or converting the analog signal to a digital one for processing, as far out of the chip as possible, close to the antenna.

The last step? Manufacturing it cheaply enough to succeed in the marketplace, which at Intel means developing the technology in CMOS silicon. Pawlowski said he expects the industrys first 802.15 announcements in two to three years, which means that a reconfigurable radio may be even farther into the future.

"If we want to use processes of scale, we cant go changing the recipe in the fab," Pawlowskoi said, referring to the CMOS "recipe" used by Intels chipsets and microprocessors. Integrating the radios means exactly matching the CMOS process Intel uses in its other products, he said.

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