Turning up the wireless

Cable-free communications technologies have revolutionised the way we work, and there is much more to come. Ron Condon explains the innovations and their terminology.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Wireless communication, in its many guises, promises to change the way we run business in all sorts of novel ways. To illustrate the point: a truck hurtles down a freeway somewhere in the US. Every 12 hours, a small electronic box in the chassis transmits a radio signal to sensors on each of the vehicle's tyres, and the sensors return a pressure reading. The box then makes a cellphone call back to the transport company's computers to transmit the pressure readings. If a tyre is losing air, it probably needs replacing, and maintenance can be scheduled. Safety is assured and, in the highly regulated transportation industry, the company has a complete audit log to demonstrate its commitment to good practice.

The system - still at the trial stage - uses two kinds of wireless communication to complete its task. The short-range communication to the tyres is based on a new technology called Zigbee (see opposite), and the assembled readings are sent via a standard cellphone.

All very obscure, perhaps, yet wireless technology is something you need to know about. It is finding new uses all the time right across industry, providing a valuable real-time link in areas where cable would be either impossible (as with a moving truck) or inconvenient. How does it sound to have a pristine working environment without the rat's-nest of wiring that presently clutters up the place? One where moving to a new desk or workspace is as simple as picking up your laptop and just going there? This - and many more wireless-led innovations - is happening now. The trouble is that there are so many different flavours of wireless to choose from.

So if you still think that wireless is what you listen to the news on, here's the MT bluffer's guide to the how, what, where and which of wireless technology.

WIFI

Anyone with a wireless network at home or in the office knows the pleasure of being able to site the computer where they like, away from the nearest network socket, and work as well as if linked to the network by a cable.

The uptake of wireless networking for PC users has been huge, boosted by the inclusion of the Intel Centrino chip in most new laptops, making it instantly ready for WiFi connection.

WiFi relies on a series of 'access points': radio base-stations that communicate with the mobile devices and feed their traffic into the cabled network. The range of an access point can be up to 100 metres, so a corporate wireless network usually needs a series of connected access points for full coverage.

The most common WiFi standard - 802.11g as it is helpfully known - offers up to 54 megabits per second, making it comparable in speed to an office cabled network. The provision of WiFi networks in coffee shops, hotels and airport lounges ensures that a laptop user is rarely far from a WiFi hotspot.

WIMAX

Despite the strange name, Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMax) promises to be the 'next big thing' in mobile networking. Unlike the existing 2G and 3G technologies, WiMax has sprung from the IT rather than the telecom world, with the support of chip-maker Intel and phone-maker Nokia. It delivers high-speed broadband access over a range of two miles from the nearest base station (with the possibility of up to 30 miles).

As well as offering much greater freedom of movement than WiFi, WiMax is seen as the ideal delivery mechanism for service operators in outlying rural areas where cabling to each residence is expensive. It also allows emerging economies to leapfrog WiFi and cabled networks, establishing broadband networks at lower cost than cable-laying.

There are already pockets of WiMax around the world, and investment is high. But most observers say it will be five years before WiMax becomes a mainstream technology, especially as 3G networks are finding ways of boosting their power. Its arrival may, however, be accelerated by Intel's involvement - the Centrino wireless chip helped to boost WiFi, and Intel could do the same for WiMax.

BLUETOOTH

This short-range communications technology is familiar as the system that makes hands-free mobile phone headsets work. It also links PCs to printers, mice and keyboards. It has a range of up to 10m, and can transmit data at one megabit per second - fast enough for speech, keyboard and mouse-clicks but too slow for most other applications. It doesn't use much power - hence its suitability for mobile phones - and, with high production volumes, is cheap. Transceiver chips cost about 50p each.

2G, 2.5G AND 3G

These telecommunications standards relate to mobile phones and communication devices such as the BlackBerry, rather than to true networking, but the line is blurring. Second generation (2G) is the basic GSM mobile phone system that gave us easy roaming across most of the world, as well as texting (aka SMS).

3G is the 'mobile internet' service, which helped to swell Gordon Brown's coffers in 2000 when telecoms firms paid huge sums to win operating licences. After a slow start, prices on 3G have come down and the service has improved. The popularity of YouTube and other video websites has driven demand for video on the move, a key benefit of 3G.

The most widely used technology for 3G, agreed across Europe, is UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service) which delivers text, digitised voice, video and multimedia at up to 2 megabits per second.

3G has been further turbocharged with new add-on technologies, LTE (Long Term Evolution) and HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access), offering a maximum of 14.4 megabits/sec for downloads. Speeds of up to 40 megabits/sec are being promised.

So what is 2.5G? It's the GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) system that powers many BlackBerry devices. It can manage data speeds of 114 kilobits/sec, fast enough for e-mail but 10 times slower than the fastest 3G systems. But it does allow a mobile device to remain connected to the internet, so your e-mails arrive and are sent more or less in real time, without you having to log on.

RFID

The Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag has crept quietly into our lives, identifying goods in stores and enabling holders of pre-paid travel cards to pass in and out of railway stations and buses. Originally seen as a successor to the humble bar-code, RFID provides an increasingly cheap and effective way to store a lot of information and to communicate wirelessly at close quarters.

The price of an RFID tag is now in pennies, making it viable for the identification and protection of medium-priced goods. The technology is also widely used in logistics, for tracking packages, and in such areas as pharmaceuticals, where the tag can help reduce counterfeiting by maintaining a record of where and when products were made and distributed.

The data rate from an RFID tag is low and depends on the wattage used, but in any case will not exceed 200 kilobits/second. Similarly, communication is close-range at under 10m.

ZIGBEE

This is another new short-range development, but, working over distances of around 30m, it offers greater coverage than either Bluetooth or RFID. It has a data rate of just 250 kilobits/sec, but is incredibly economical on power - one of its transmitters can run on an AA battery for up to seven years. As the truck example (see introduction) illustrates, this makes it ideal for remote and hostile environments. MaxStream, the US company running the truck trial, says it has also installed sensors down mineshafts, in vineyards and on motorway signs, and says major new applications include monitoring utility meters and home automation. Watch this space.

UWB

Ultra-wideband (UWB) is brand-new, a wireless broadcasting standard capable of streaming large volumes of data at high speed, but at close range only (up to 10m). One possible application would be sending a video from a device like an iPod or a digital camcorder to a TV screen.

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