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Micro-mech chips to free phones from 'grip of death'

RF MEMS to the rescue

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CES 2012

In the summer of 2010, Apple's marketing was forced to move from the offensive into a defensive mode. The successful launch in June of the iPhone 4 had been quickly followed by 'Antennagate', the controversy surrounding claims that holding the handset in a certain way would kill its ability to communicate with mobile phone networks.

Worse, this so-called 'death grip' turned out to be the way rather a lot of phones naturally sit in their owners' hands.

Apple's then CEO Steve Jobs was able to turn the situation around, persuading the world that not only was the Antennagate overblown but that all mobiles suffer from the same problem to a greater or lesser extent. The iPhone 4 was perhaps more susceptible because its antenna was a metal band wrapped around the case.

Or, rather, several antennae: one for the phone's Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections, both operating in the 2.4GHz band, and a second for its GSM and 3G communications, in a range of frequencies.

Jobs' point, in part, was that mobile phone designers may hide away their antennae, but they all suffer from changes in the wireless environment, in this case by the close proximity of an 80 per cent water human hand.

Smartphones, which are all about accessing data services through a variety of wireless network types, suffer more so than old, voice-centric devices.

But 2012 may be the year in which this ceases to be a problem.

Enter the RF MEMS chip, a device with a name derived from the initials of Radio Frequency Micro-Electrical Mechanical System. Essentially, it's a silicon chip that contains microscopic moving parts.

RF MEMS chip makers, such as Irvine, California's WiSpry showed its offerings off at this week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Punters won't ever see RF MEMS chips, but if WiSpry is right they will enjoy the benefits: fewer if any dropped calls and faster downloads.

WiSpry's chip makes it easier, the company claims, for a phone to tune its antenna to the signal it's receiving and what it's transmitting. As phones become slimmer, and bigger batteries mean there's even less room inside a handset for all the other essential parts, antennae are getting smaller. That makes accurate, fast tuning even more essential, to ensure as little energy is lost in the pick-up or during transmission.

WiSpry's part contains mechanical capacitors that are physically altered to adjust the volume of electrical charge they can hold and thus the tuning of the antenna.

WiSpry is already selling chips to phone makers. It said this week its technology sits at the core of the first mass-produced RF MEMS-enabled handset. It didn't name the phone or the manufacturer, but market watcher iSuppli says it's the Samsung Focus Flash, a Windows smartphone.

iSuppli notes another benefit of tunable antennae: instead of requiring separate radios and aerials to work with multiple wireless technologies, as current handsets do, future phones will be able to tune a single radio and antenna to more than own network type.

The arrival of new wireless technologies and the need to support older ones in order to retain compatibility means the number of network types future handsets will need to support is going to increase not go down. Without a tunable 'one size fits all' radio, that may prove too costly, slowing the uptake of new, faster network technologies.

WiSpry isn't the only company developing RF MEMS devices, but it seems to have a head start, thanks to the Samsung deal, unacknowledged by either company. There are other technologies available to phone makers keen to implement antenna tuning too.

Whichever prevails, and if the Samsung Focus Flash proves to be more signal friendly than its rivals, tunable antenna may allow the likes of Apple to be even more adventurous with its iPhone aerial arrangement. ®

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