Wireless: Is Radical Innovation Still Possible?

Great leaps forward (CDMA, OFDM, and MIMO come to mind) are rare, and many assume we’re at the end of the road. But with significant innovations continuing to appear, are we really?

I spoke this week with a senior executive of wireless technology startup MagnaCom a company that made some pretty impressive claims with their announcement of Wave Modulation, or WAM. Among those claims are that WAM offers an additional 10 dB of processing gain over 4096QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation), a high-end version (802.11ac, for example, uses only 256QAM) of the current standard of modulation used in many wireless systems. Since each 3 dB effectively doubles gain, Magnacom is really claiming a more than 8X increase in overall performance, which can translate in improvements in some combination of power consumption, range, signaling and data rate, and reliability. Specifically, MagnaCom claims up to 400% better range, 50% less power consumption, a 50% improvement in spectral efficiency, and lower cost. In other words, what we have here, potentially, anyway, is that most holiest of holy grails in wireless, a radical improvement in radio performance.

MagnaCom is being (perhaps necessarily) a bit vague with these claims at present, but the underlying strategies of the technology - multi-dimensionality (vs. the 2D of QAM), spectral compression, tolerance of non-linear channels and amplifiers, and removing the requirement for orthogonality - all appear, at first glance, anyway, sound.

It's important to note here that Magnacom is really offering an improvement only in modulation or (cautiously using the term here) baseband; the radio itself (and antennas and other analog components) are unaffected. And, as a modulation technology, WAM should be applicable to a wide variety of wireless - and wired - implementations. Backwards-compatible implementations should also be possible. I suspect we'll initially see WAM in lower-volume markets where standards play less of a role, such and point-to-point microwave backhaul. And I don't think we'll see WAM in systems like WLANs and WWANs for at least five years, but an intriguing thought did cross my mind - a technique like this could be applicable to both Wi-Fi and cellular. A single radio to rule them all? Maybe - someday.

Now - I've not seen a demo, and the company is holding its technology cards very close the vest. They did mention, however, a demo at CES and immediate availability to "early access partners". I think the bottom line here is that we'll have to wait to see what real-world benefits actually accrue from Magnacom's innovations, but the claimed numbers are indeed impressive. As has been the case for the past 200 years, the lights should remain on at the patent office in 2014, and us mere mortal users may even see these benefits in products over the next few years.

Smaller-scale innovation is also alive and well, with the semiconductor guys still leading the way. Quintic, for example, announced a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) chip that's very cheap ($1.50 in thousands) and very power-efficient (8 mA peak power consumption). Imec has a low-cost, low-power 60-GHz. 802.11ad chip, and is also competing in the ultra-low-power BLE market as well.

I could go on, but you get the point: expect a lot of exciting developments in wireless in 2014! I've been working wireless for over 22 years, and mobile for much longer than that, and I'm still impressed with the technical creativity that talented engineers and scientists can throw at very basic problems that one might have assumed, given all the smart people working day in and day out in the field, would have been exhausted by now.

And, on that very happy note, that's it for this year. Due to the middle-of-the-week occurrence of Christmas and New Year's, we'll be unofficially closed from this Friday, 20 December, until 6 January 2014. I say "unofficially" because I will be here at least part of the time, rebuilding the network and performing assorted other IT upgrades that I do every year around this time, as well as conducting a few experiments and other engineering activities, working on a couple of client projects, and, when not here, spending time with my family, as I hope you will with yours as well. I wish everyone all the best for the holidays and the New Year! See you in January.

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