Wireless Perception vs. Wireless Reality

Opinion: The Bluetooth Special Interest Group has its hands full trying to keep both Intel and the International Telecommunication Union happy about WiMax and UWB support.

Reality just cant match perception for importance, as supermodel Kate Moss is discovering. And so is Intel.

More to the point, so is Bluetooth, although the typical Bluetooth supplier isnt worried about what goes up the Bluetooth nose; theyre more concerned with what gets up the nose of the general public. And its really odd that the Bluetooth alliance is worried, because the future of Bluetooth is assured. But the future of the Bluetooth SIG, the special interest group, is changing, and it wants to boost its image.

Behind this, as usual, is politics in the comms business.

Heres the problem in a nutshell: Europe doesnt see why it should accept wireless standards concocted in America by the IEEE in conjunction with the FCC.

This simply doesnt affect Bluetooth—the product as shipping today. The standard is embedded in millions of chips sold in phones, headsets, and factory equipment, cars, and audio gear around the globe; it all uses the universal license-free spectrum at 2.4GHz; it all obeys the restrictions on range and power laid down by the SIG, and the problems it faces, in the market, are all "How do we make it easier for users to start using Bluetooth toys?" Thats not a problem that fits neatly in a nutshell, at all.

But the future of Bluetooth (it has been decided) is WWB (ultra-wide band) short-range comms. And nothing could be less like Bluetooth than UWB.

For a start, UWB isnt embedded in anything at all. Its not a single standard; indeed, even the proposals for UWB standards dont envisage a single standard. There isnt a universally accepted frequency band, and—this is where it gets nasty!—there may not be one. And sitting at the fulcrum of this dispute is: well, guess who?

Intel is right inside, at the nub of the argument. And it is, in an ironic way, the author of its own misfortune, because Intel badly wants to see UWB comms work worldwide. But it also wants to see WiMax succeed worldwide.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read about the threat to WiMax from Flash-OFDM.

Ive spent some time on explaining how I perceive the Intel-WiMax project, and Intels Scott Richardson, who heads up the wireless silicon project, just laughed at me when I tried to discuss it with him at the recent 3GSM Congress. Nonetheless, what cant be disputed is that Intel is putting a huge amount of its incredibly considerable influence around the world into making sure that WiMax is going to succeed—not just as a point-to-multi-point broadband distribution system. It must also succeed as a mobile wireless system.

The logic isnt obscure here: Intel made a big profit as well as good revenue out of WiFi and Centrino; and it feels certain that if WiFi were truly ubiquitous, Centrino would be even more successful and more profitable. But WiFi isnt manageable centrally; its a maverick technology, in the hands of anybody who can generate a 2.4GHz signal, and almost entirely unregulated. WiMax, by contrast, could become a real worldwide technology infrastructure (Intel thinks) available everywhere people gather together in towns.

The result is that Intel has persuaded, cajoled, intimidated, funded and generally bullied the worlds regulators into seeing WiMax as a bandwagon that theyd better clear the streets for.

Perception, reality. Perception in the worlds regulatory offices is that WiMax is unstoppable. Reality is that even at 2.5GHz, Intels preferred slot for a world-wide standard, WiMax is stoppable by a single stone wall. At the various 3.X and 5.X GHz frequencies which are favored, WiMax will get through one wall—if its made of timber or plasterboard.

This hardly matters for projects like the Aperto Networks WiMax rollout in Saudi Arabia, or the Red Kite broadband venture in London using Radionet equipment. They have a big transceiver on their central distribution towers in urban areas, and then put receiver nodes on the top floor of the buildings in which their customers live. Then they run an Ethernet cable down the lift shaft and into the customer office. Bingo! 24 by 7 broadband, uncontended, for a tenth of the price of a leased line.

But Intels WiMax has no ethernet cable; it has this vision of a WiMax wireless node covering the city block, and workers scurrying around, constantly logged onto the signal, always on. And the signal inside buildings?

Weak. Very, very weak indeed. So weak (say regulators) that even background noise becomes an issue, and must be a major focus.

Bluetooth wants to run UWB. UWB (say all the white papers) is less powerful than normal background noise. Well, say the European regulators, that depends. Are we talking about 40 dB or 60 dB UWB? Because (they say) if its going to be 60 dB, then their projections for mobile WiMax look suspiciously vulnerable to UWB interference.

Technology, or politics? Ask your own favorite wireless expert. I do know that the Bluetooth SIG is seriously concerned about finding itself in the middle of a storm, where it finds Intel beating it up in the red corner for failing to adopt Intels favorite technology (WiMax) and finds the ITU lobby beating it up in the blue corner, for failing to facilitate Intels favorite technology (UWB).

Im not a betting man—not with my own money!—but if youll lend me a five pound note, Ill put a wager on an e-mail going out to Bluetooth SIG members to increase their contributions to the publicity budget in the next few months. SIG Chairman Mike Foley will tear his hair out at this needless distraction from doing a good, competent technical job, of course. But in Sweden, Anders Edlund has, I think, the clearer vision.

Bluetooth needs not only to be successful, but to win hearts and minds. Selling millions of toys is good; but that wont capture the imagination of tech writers who are in love with UWB and who see Bluetooth as boring. That takes a creative PR campaign, and that requires a budget.

Contributing columnist Guy Kewney has been irritating the complacent in high tech since 1974. Previously with PC Mag UK and ZDNet UK, Guy helped found InfoWorld, Personal Computer World, MicroScope, PC Dealer, AFAICS Research and NewsWireless. And he only commits one blog—forgiveable, surely? He can be reached at gkewney@yahoo.com.

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