It was - and is - the best of times, at least for wireless technologies, and particularly antennas, that part of the radio that seems to garner the least attention. The analogy I've used most often with respect to antennas is the tires on a car. One's choice of tires can have a positively dramatic effect on overall performance. And, like tires, the antenna is the only part of the overall mechanism that is actually in contact with the medium upon which it operates, so there's really no surprise here - better antennas make better radios. And I'd argue that finding and applying the optimal antenna is a clear path to improving performance across many dimensions - and perhaps dramatically.
I spent time this week with two interesting innovators in antennas, and once again came away amazed that this this less-visible end of the wireless value chain is still producing remarkable and beneficial developments. The first of these is the Venti Group, who invented and license the Venti Antenna. The company's claim to fame here is a simple two-layer PC-board-based antenna, a disc about 30 mm in diameter (the exact size depends, of course, on what frequency band it's optimized for) and about .5 mm thick that is horizontally polarized, meaning the waves coming off the antenna propagate horizontally. Most dipole antennas, the most common type in wireless LANs, for example, are vertically polarized. Since horizontal propagation is usually more important than vertical, we should see significant improvements in performance with a Venti antenna - and the company noted that their testing is showing 15%-20% better throughput with their antenna being the only variable. Combining horizontal and vertical antennas in a single implementation could have a really dramatic benefit for overall throughput - although the bouncing of signals indoors will undoubtedly limit this benefit somewhat. They are also working on collinear arrays of these antenna elements for MIMO applications, and even tiny 60 GHz. versions for 802.11ad. I can't wait to try any and all of these out here once products based on them are available - this is potentially a very big deal.
The other comes from long-time antenna leader Skycross, who take the opposite approach to antennas. Skycross builds antennas under the iMAT (Isolated Mode Antenna Technology) brand that work across multiple frequency bands. This is important because handset vendors ideally would like to build a single model ("SKU", or stock-keeping unit) that they can sell everywhere. But LTE works on a wide variety of frequencies globally, and this is where their latest innovation, VersiTune-LTE, comes in, enabling the antenna to be tuned to a broad range of frequencies. The company in conjunction with China Mobile has demonstrated tunability from 700 MHz. to 2.7 GHz. iMAT antennas are works of both art and technology, and a remarkable development in what, again, is a less-visible corner of wireless overall.
You can expect to see a continuing high rate of innovation in antennas going forward, with numerous corresponding benefits for users. More, then, on all of this next year.
Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm in Ashland, Mass.