Near field communications, Ultra Wideband wireless gaining ground

Emerging wireless technologies show maturity at recent consumer show

An array of wireless technologies at the recent Consumer Electronics Show are heading toward wider deployment, creating links to each other, to information, and the world in new ways.

New wireless activity tends to center around the 802.11 high throughput standard, as it did at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. But Wi-Fi isn’t the only game in wireless, and a few new technologies, while not in the limelight, are beginning to show promising maturity. These include:

* Near field communications (NFC), in which devices touch or nearly touch to trigger a wireless transaction.

* Ultra Wideband (UWB) wireless, which is spreading through products using the wireless USB specification, and in “in-room” video and audio streaming.

* Wireless sensor protocols stacks, including the rival ZigBee and Z-Wave specifications, that are built atop the 802.15.4 radio standard and can be used in home and industrial settings as well as building automation and energy management applications.

NFC on the brink

NFC is a kind of extremely short-range RFID technology that operates in the 13.56MHz band, which is available worldwide. There are three data rates -- 106K, 212K and 424Kbps -- that operate over just 4 centimeters, or less than 2 inches. Paper-thin tags with an antenna and a tiny data chip are the passive component; they store data and are incorporated into ticketing and payment cards or sandwiched into posters.

The tags can be scanned and read by devices with a NFC reader, which can be built into cell phones (Nokia already has them on some cell phone models), point-of-sale scanners or key fobs. Mastercard and Visa are planning to launch contactless payment cards based on NFC: Tap the card on a point-of-sale terminal, the transaction completes, and your account is debited.

NFC is being shepherded by the NFC Forum, an industry group that launched three years ago with 20 members and now has more than 150, including nearly every big name in chipmaking, handsets, consumer electronics, telecom operators and even financial services.

The Forum will finalize the NFC standard by June 2008, says Gerhard Romen, the forum’s vice chairman and head of Nokia’s NFC market development. Information is being released about NFC testing specifications. Later this year and into 2009, there will be large-scale NFC rollouts, many through the mobile operators, Romen says.

Last October, Starhub, one of three mobile operators in Singapore, announced a trial that will offer a payment service in conjunction with EZ-Link Pte, a government-owned company that operates a contactless NFC-based payment service. The EZ-Link cards can be used to pay for public transport in Singapore as well as purchases in some stores by waving them over a reader.

Earlier in 2007, Nokia formed a joint venture with a German smart card manufacturer, Giesecke & Devrient, to secure electronic payments made via NFC. The new company will create and operate a service platform that can be used by banks or mobile phone network operators to securely manage transactions made using NFC-equipped cell phones.

At CES, Romen showed a vivid example of NFC’s surface simplicity. Using a Nokia phone/music player, he showed the multiple steps, including text input, needed to select and download a MP3 music file. Then, he used a NFC-equipped phone to tap a NFC tag, which could be embedded in a poster or on a kiosk. The phone screen displayed the filename and URL, the transaction completed, and the file downloaded to the phone automatically over a secure Bluetooth connection. A more complex demonstration let him view, organize, select and buy one-way train fare from a city train station to an outlying airport

Next-generation UWB silicon

UWB wireless today delivers between 50M and 80Mbps throughput for the current generation of cable-replacement, wireless USB products (based on the C-WUSB standard). But that’s about to jump significantly, as the next iteration of UWB silicon is implemented.

With the WiMedia Alliance UWB specification, peak rates could hit 300M to 377Mbps. It’s a short-range transmission, about 30 feet, optimized by the Alliance for streaming traffic. It uses very little power, about 1mW per Mbps compared with 15-20mW/Mbps for 802.11g and an estimated 6-8mW/Mbps for 802.11n, according to the Alliance’s documentation.

Most early products today are devices like wireless hubs that use UWB to connect a clutch of peripherals to a PC with a UWB dongle plugged into a USB port, because there’s “no integration required,” says Stephen Wood, an Intel executive who’s also president of the WiMedia Alliance. The first Alliance-certified products emerged only in October 2007.

But equipment vendors are already migrating to the higher performing products of the next-generation UWB silicon, and planning on integrating that directly into their products. At CES, for example, Intel demonstrated its just-released UWB Link 3480, a single-chip CMOS WiMedia-compliant implementation, the first in the 6GHz band, that can be used in PCI Express Mini Cars and Half-Mini Cards built into notebooks, handhelds, set top boxes and digital TVs. Intel showed a two-way UWB link streaming video at 200Mbps. There are 12 to 15 chipmakers cranking out UWB silicon, far more than in either the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi markets, Wood says.

Wood is confident that the common UWB radio platform will establish itself as the preferred means for high-throughput, short-range networking among groups of devices. Compared with wireless LANs, the WiMedia platform is a simpler network, he says, and it doesn’t run the risks of spectrum saturation or interference that potentially could cripple 802.11n for high-definition video transmissions involving multiple TV sets, video recorders and players.

The Bluetooth SIG is working toward a 3.0 specification that will use UWB to achieve data rates of 100Mbps. And the WiMedia Alliance is working with the ECMA International standards group to craft a UWB standard for emerging radios in the 60GHz band.

Warring wireless sensor standards

Wireless sensor products and nets were showcased from vendors implementing either the ZigBee or Z-Wave standards, which are implemented in home devices such as surveillance systems and motion sensors, electrical and heating/cooling controls, and energy management systems.

ZigBee is a protocol stack for the IEEE 802.14.5 radio standard, from the ZigBee alliance, with about 150 member companies. Z-Wave was shepherded by Zensys, maker of the Z-Wave wireless chips and radios, through the Z-Wave Alliance, which claims about the same number of members. The standards are incompatible, though both support low-power, wireless mesh networking.

At CES, Zensys announced its next-generation chip, including a variant designed to replace infrared in audio-visual controls. Intermatic, which makes the InTouch wireless control system, unveiled a Z-Wave gateway that lets users activate InTouch from their vehicle using in-headlight-mounted garage door openers or via the second new product, a three-button keyfob control. The new wireless conversion module lets the keyfob work with any garage door opener.

ZigBee chipmaker Ember showcased several products including those recently introduced by a British company, Alertme.com.  The company has crafted an array of easy-to-use modules,  including a hub that plugs into the home broadband router/gateway. The modules include a motion sensor, a door/window sensor, and an alarm for temperature or smoke or other environmental variables. The sensor modules link to the router, and an Alertme.com Web site lets you administer your plug-and-play system: You can even direct that alarms be e-mailed to you, or called in to a phone number.

In December, Southern California Edison chose Itron’s Zigbee-based (via Ember chips) OpenWave smart metering system as the foundation for a new effort to improve energy management for some 5 million homes and businesses through 2012. The ZigBee infrastructure will link smart meters with thermostats, information displays, and a growing number of “smart” appliances. Ultimately, the utility will be able to more precisely and efficiently manage electrical demand across its customer base.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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