Most people visit CES to look at the cool new toys. We stayed off the show floor and spent most of our time talking with more than a dozen semiconductor companies.
The best way to get a sense for tomorrow's cool toys is by understanding the features of new chips and the timing for their development and integration into consumer products. The chip developer's "road map" shows how further integration will reduce the size, weight and power consumption of new chips -- leading the way to new applications and lower prices.
This year, we focused on chips in four areas:
We've written many articles about powerline networking, both for broadband access (often called BPL) and for home networking. See our Topical Index for Broadband Access to the Home: Powerline (BPL) and Home Networking: Powerline.
At CES, we met with Jorge Blasco, President and CEO of DS2 [see Faster Powerline: An Interview with DS2 (BBHR 12/20/04) and with Brian Donnelly, Director of Strategic Accounts at Corinex Communications [see Corinex Communications -- Succeeding with HomePlug in Europe (BBHR 10/31/04)]. At DS2's booth, we saw several new products based on DS2's new 200 Mbps chips, including the Corinex AV Powerline Ethernet adapter designed for networking video and data throughout the home.
Universal Powerline Association (UPA)
Jorge and Brian told us about the newly started Universal Powerline Association (UPA), formed to create coexistence and interoperability standards and announced at CES. Along with DS2 and Corinex, UPA includes many PLC system integrators including Ambient (US), Ascom (Switzerland), Schneider Electric (France) and Itochu, Sumitomo and Toyocom (Japan).
To learn more about UPA, we met with Eric Morel, board chairman of the UPA and CEO of Ilevo, the broadband powerline subsidiary of Schneider Electric. Eric said the founders of UPA believe the first priority is to create coexistence standards, enabling different broadband access and home networking technologies to operate on the same power lines without interfering with each other. Interoperability is a second priority.
We observed that UPA seemed to be in conflict with the HomePlug Powerline Alliance which--as we have written--is nearing completion of its next-generation HomePlug AV and recently started working on interoperability specs for broadband over powerline. Eric said HomePlug was welcome to join UPA--"the door is open for everybody".
Eric said UPA feels the market is ready for products now--"Start from the market, start from the need"--and needs an assurance of coexistence. The HomePlug President, Oleg Logvinov, spoke at the UPA press conference and told us the HomePlug goal "is to have interoperable products inside and outside the home. If it helps coexistence, we're glad to help. Our goal is to create interoperability - whatever makes the market an integrated place."
There's clearly a disagreement as to which needs to come first. Eric thinks service providers will start deploying PLC-based broadband access once they have assurance of coexistence; Oleg thinks they'll wait until they can buy interoperable products that include coexistence as one of their features. We should know who's right by the end of this year.
Ultra Wideband (UWB): An end to all those cables!
We have been watching ultra wideband (UWB) for some time. UWB advocates agree on the goals: to create "personal area networks" connecting many devices together at very high speed. These goals are similar to Bluetooth--standardized as IEEE 802.15.1--but operating at a much higher speed. Picture a PC and its peripherals (keyboard, mouse, printer, scanner) plus digital cameras and camcorders all connecting together automatically whenever they come in range of each other.
UWB operates by sending a very low level signal across a very wide range of frequencies. Since many licensed services already operate in the same bands as UWB, the FCC considered and approved specific rules for UWB in 2002.
Standards for UWB are being developed by the IEEE 802.15.3a Task Group for high-rate wireless personal area networks. This group has been in a deadlock for some time. Two factions have proposed mutually-incompatible approaches; each has enough adherents to prevent the other from achieving the 75% vote required for passage.
The key advocates of the two approaches have formed competing organizations aimed at bringing products to market;
WiMedia Alliance: the "Wi-Fi Alliance" of UWB
The WiMedia Alliance focuses on "high data-rate, wireless multimedia networking applications operating in a wireless personal area network (WPAN)." It "promotes WPAN connectivity and interoperability" based on UWB.
When it was formed in 2002, WiMedia served as a bridge between the competing technologies, with promoter members and senior officers coming from both groups. In mid-2004, apparently tired of the IEEE impasse, WiMedia announced its decision to move forward with the MBOA specifications and not wait for the IEEE. Soon thereafter, the supporters of the DS-UWB approach resigned from WiMedia and vacated their leadership positions.
At CES, MBOA sponsored an area in the "Innovations Plus" exhibit area. In the WiMedia Alliance booth we met with Glyn Roberts, President of WiMedia and Manager, Business R&D, Advanced System Technology at STMicroelectronics. Glyn told us that WiMedia is "the Wi-Fi of UWB" focused on interoperability testing, certification and branding (referring to the same role played by the Wi-Fi Alliance for wireless local area networks based on the 802.11 standards).
Glyn explained that the essense of the WiMedia approach is "decentralized control - every device is a peer, there's no master." He described the WiMedia role in the UWB ecosystem architecture and showed us a diagram that made it very clear: WiMedia provides a "convergence platform" between the MBOA radio technology and higher level applications, including Wireless USB, Wireless 1394 and UNnP/IP. [A version of this diagram is shown in slides 3-5 of Jeff Ravencraft's CES presentation Wireless USB Initiative: First Hi-Speed WPAN Interconnect (Adobe Acrobat PDF, 4.7 MB)]
The WiMedia approach is designed to allow all of these wireless applications to run on a common platform, replacing the confusing tangle of wires now used to connect PCs to peripherals, and to interconnect consumer electronics devices.
Glyn told us MBOA and WiMedia are moving along well in completing the specifications and member companies are working on chips and software. Finished products should be available "by the end of 2005 -- maybe early 2006."
We met with Jim Lansford, CTO of Alereon, a fabless semiconductor company and a founding member of WiMedia. We saw a working demonstration of an MBOA system based on Alereon's evaluation boards.
By its nature, "ultra wideband" operates across a very wide band of frequencies, and would seem to have a high potential for interference with other wireless technologies. Jim had been chair of the IEEE 802.19 Coexistence Technical Advisory Group, and we asked about the coexistence of UWB and Wi-Fi. He said that Alereon had paid "aggressive attention to interference and coexistence with 802.11a and 802.11b".
Alereon's current implementation operates in the 3.1 to 4.7 band, in-between the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands used for 802.11b/g and 802.11a. Jim said Alereon uses "spectral sculpting" to control the power of individual tones in the spectrum, and had worked hard to keep out-of-band noise levels very low to avoid interference.
Jim told us Alereon's current implementation was FPGA based and production chips would ship in the second half of this year.
Wireless USB Promoter Group
The Wireless USB Promoter Group is working to create a wireless extension to the very successful USB interface. This would interconnect PCs with peripherals like keyboards, printers, scanners, digital cameras, camcorders and disk drives. It is likely to be the first large-scale application of the MBOA/WiMedia approach to UWB.
Jeff Ravencraft, Technology Strategist, Intel Corporation and Chairman of the Wireless USB Promoter Group spoke in the session on advanced wireless technologies we organized and moderated at CES a few weeks ago. He discussed UWB technology and its application to Wireless USB.
Jeff said that end-user products would appear by the end of 2005. These would start as "add-on modules" and then as mini-PCI cards for installation inside notebook PCs, with a combined Wi-Fi/W-USB card by 2006 or 2007. See our web site for a description of the session and a link to Jeff's talk.
Motorola was an early believer in UWB and an investor in XtremeSpectrum, a semiconductor startup and pioneer in UWB. Motorola and XtremeSpectrum together provided the leadership for the DS faction in the UWB standards debate. In late 2003, Motorola acquired Xtreme's UWB assets and folded them into Freescale Semiconductor, its semiconductor division, which was spun off in 2004. Now Freescale and Motorola are leading the charge for DS-UWB.
At CES, we met with Martin Rofheart, a UWB pioneer, founder and CEO of XtremeSpectrum and now Director of UWB Operations at Freescale. Martin presented a very different view of UWB, focused on markets and products and meeting customer needs now.
Freescale and its UWB Forum partners showed several demonstrations of working systems based on their UWB chips:
Martin showed us the Freescale UWB chips packaged by Samsung into mini-PCI cards. Samsung is one of the few companies that is a senior member of both UWB camps. As one of the leaders in consumer electronics, Samsung is clearly willing to put its resources into and its name behind the DS-UWB products.
MBOA advocates claim a 480 Mbps speed for the OFDM version of UWB compared with 110 Mbps for Freescale's current DS-UWB chips. But this is comparing chips still in development to ones already in production and starting to be incorporated into real products. Martin told us that Freescale would launch a much higher speed version of DS-UWB later this year.
Martin feels Freescale is well ahead of the MBOA/WiMedia grouping in getting UWB into the market, and will soon find out about consumer acceptance. In spite of the forces arrayed on the other side, the UWB battle is far from over.
( www.ieee802.org/15/pub/TG3a.html ) ( www.multibandofdm.org ) ( www.uwbforum.org ) ( www.wimedia.org ) ( www.st.com ) ( www.wi-fi.org ) ( www.alereon.com ) ( www.usb.org/wusb ) ( www.intel.com ) ( www.motorola.com ) ( www.freescale.com ) ( www.haier.com/english/ ) ( www.intellon.com ) ( www.samsung.com )
MIMO/802.11n -- An Interview with Airgo
In December, we interviewed Greg Raleigh, President and CEO of Airgo Networks. Airgo is a pioneer in the design of wireless networks based on MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) "smart antenna" technology. MIMO takes advantage of multiple reflections of a radio signal, and Airgo claims it can substantially improve both the speed and the range of wireless systems.
Following several years of development, Airgo recently released its AGN100 "True MIMO&tm;" Wi-Fi chipset to add MIMO to existing 802.11g and 802.11a networks. Unlike some other "acceleration" technologies, Airgo's chipset operates in the current 20 MHz channels.
The AGN100 is included in several new wireless networking products, including a "Wireless PreN" router and adapter card from Belkin and a similar "Wireless-G with SRX Series" from Linksys. These are being marketed as premium products, with large improvements in speed and range.
Airgo is a participant in the upcoming IEEE 802.11n standard group developing the next generation of Wi-Fi. Greg said that while the group has the usual disagreements about the specifics of new standards, everyone agrees MIMO will be central to 802.11n's aim of reaching 100 Mbps throughput.
Greg said Airgo expects its technology will appear in the 802.11n standard, and that it will be a major player as first "draft 11n" and then "final 11n" products appear on the market. He hopes Airgo will play the leading market role in 11n, as Atheros did in 11a and Broadcom did in 11g.
We invited Greg to talk about MIMO and 802.11n in the session on advanced wireless technologies we organized and moderated at CES a few weeks ago. See our web site for a description of the session and a link to Greg's talk.
In late December, Airgo announced that it had shipped more than one million of its chips (enough to equip a quarter million stations) "in less than one quarter of retail market availability". Although it's not clear how many of these have sold through to users, it's still very impressive and a clear indication that MIMO is making its mark now.
"Pre-N" and the Wi-Fi Alliance
Many participants in the Wi-Fi Alliance are upset with the "pre-N" characterization of the new devices based on Airgo's chips. While MIMO will almost certainly be part of the 802.11n standard, Airgo's new chips do not promise to be compatible with 11n; they are really extensions of 802.11g and 802.11a.
The Alliance said that it would not certify 802.11n devices "until the standard is ratified" and said that was not expected for "approximately two years (November 2006)." It expressed concern that "pre-N" devices might not be interoperable with other certified products and threatened to decertify "Wi-Fi CERTIFIED" equipment if it is not interoperable.
Greg said that's not a problem with its devices. Indeed, he said existing 11g equipment will work better when used in networks with True MIMO devices.
Our "Pre-N" Tests
Shortly before we left for CES, Airgo shipped us a set of the Belkin devices, and we had the opportunity to start a new round of tests comparing the "PreN" devices with standard 11g devices. Our early results are very promising, showing a very significant improvement in both range and speed as promised.
We expect to finish these tests and report on the results in the February issue of this report.
Coax Networking -- An Update on Entropic and MoCA
We've written before about Entropic Communications, a company developing chipsets and associated software for networking digital entertainment over the coaxial cables already installed in people's home [see "Whole Home" Networking over Coax -- An Interview with Entropic (BBHR 11/16/2003)]. We've long believed that "whole home" networking will require a combination of technologies, and coax networking is a good candidate for the "backbone" carrying video, voice and data throughout the home.
At CES, we met with Patrick Henry, President and CEO, and Ladd Wardani, VP Business Development. Entropic was one of the founders of the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) and Ladd serves as MOCA's President.
Patrick told us that Entropic's chipset is now a "production solution". It is the first solution compliant with the MoCA specifications and Entropic expects certification "by the end of March." It is designed for networking digital entertainment throughout the home, carrying HD video, audio and data over existing coax cabling. It will work with all video sources, including external content from cable, satellite or telephone providers, and local content from DVRs.
Patrick said "Multi-room DVR is the killer app" for Entropic's chipset. He thinks the potential market is huge: "100 million homes in the US subscribe to video from cable or satellite; 50 million of those home already get digital TV" forming a natural market for multi-room DVR.
Many companies demonstrated products based on Entropic's networking technology at CES. One of these was Ucentric Systems, which has been working on a multi-room DVR for many years [see Fulfilling the Vision of the Broadband Home -- A Visit with Ucentric Systems (BBHR 11/14/2001)]. At CES, Ucentric and DIRECTV announced that DIRECTV would deploy Ucentric's Home Media Center software platform "to provide DIRECTV customers with digital video recorder (DVR) service on all television sets." Immediately following CES, Motorola (also a member of MoCA) announced it had acquired Ucentric and would integrate Ucentric's software into its Home Media Architecture.
The View from Broadcom - One-button security
We always enjoy visiting Broadcom's exhibit at CES and seeing what the broadband giant is up to. This year, what interested us most was a solution to security on wireless networks. It is often said that good security and ease-of-use are mutually opposed, but Broadcom has disproved this notion.
At CES, Broadcom announced new security software called SecureEasySetup, a single-button solution to make it really easy for end users to configure security on wireless LANs. A few weeks before CES, we interviewed David Cohen, Broadcom's Senior Product Marketing Manager for wireless LAN products and "the main security guy for Broadcom".
David started by telling us about the security problem: "Less than 1% of users have security turned on. They have to know what security key they are using and what key does it ship with. With WPA, the user has to configure his own key. Wi-Fi vendors already have a high support call problem - they don't want more. That's the problem we're trying to solve." He said right now "People have to trade off security and ease of use" and they choose ease of use by leaving security off.
Broadcom's SecureEasySetup solution is deceptively simple. It adds a single button to wireless devices based on Broadcom's 54g chips. To set up security "You push a button on the wireless router, then push a button on the client device--or an icon on a PC for wireless LAN adapter cards. That's all - SecureEasySetup does the rest."
We asked David how it works: "After you push both buttons, the wireless access point (AP) or router creates the SSID and a Pre-Shared Key (PSK) using random data. The AP sends the security settings to the client using an encrypted tunnel, the client sets SSID and PSK, and the network is secured." Suppose you add another client device? "Push the button on the AP again and on the new device; the AP uses the existing SSID and PSK for the new device."
At the Broadcom exhibit, we met with David and saw several new devices from Linksys and HP equipped with SecureEasySetup--it really is easy! Linksys said it will start shipping devices with SecureEasySetup during Q1, and HP said it will include it "on select HP notebook and desktop PCs and in future networked printers".
This is not the first time we've seen a "single button" approach to security. When we tested HomePlug adapters more than two years ago, we found Phonex had used a similar mechanism to establish a secure connection between its NeverWire 14 Powerline Ethernet Bridges. [See "Problems" in HomePlug Powerline Networking - Getting ready for prime time (BBHR 9/9/2002)]. The proprietary Phonex approach seemed to trade off ease of use for interoperability -- "The Phonex approach is more user-friendly, but we were unable to create a secure network combining Phonex adapters with devices using the other approach."
Since Broadcom seems to be taking a similar approach to Phonex, we asked David how SecureEasySetup would work with a non-Broadcom device, or with an older device without the SecureEasySetup button. "The last step of SecureEasySetup shows you the SSID and PSK on the security setup wizard on your PC; you can write it down or save it to a file and use it to configure the older device. Or you can go into the AP and get the SSID and PSK settings."
That will enable interoperability, but it's probably too hard for many consumers. It would be much better to have "one button security" on all Wi-Fi devices--whether or not the chips are supplied by Broadcom--so we asked David whether Broadcom would be willing to make it available to other chip makers. He said he was chairing a new Wi-Fi Alliance security group, and Broadcom was proposing SecureEasySetup as part of the Wi-Fi certification program. We asked how long it would take to standardize it, and he said "probably mid '06 to early '07".