Original URL: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/02/10/wireless_crunch_survivors/

Which wireless technologies will get credit crunched?

Goodnight, lemmings

By Bill Ray

Posted in Networks, 10th February 2009 12:02 GMT

The last few years have seen an explosion in ways of going wireless - in everything from light switches to battery chargers, wires are starting to look distinctly 20th century. But leaner times will force wireless technologies to prove their value, and not all of them are going to make it.

There is an argument that an economic boom-and-bust is useful in allowing investment in innovation that can then attempt to prove itself viable beyond the boom. The first transatlantic cable failed within a month, but a sustained economic boom enabled a (second) replacement to earn $1000 in the first day's operation. Eight years later, in leaner economic times, an iceberg-crushed connection was repaired within weeks - the innovation had proved itself an essential part of Victorian life.

Some technologies, such as the proximity systems used for pre-paid mass transit by Oyster and its ilk, have proved their value and aren't going anywhere - the infrastructure has been built and the investment made. But others, such as the much-discussed white-space devices soon to become available in the USA, are running out of time to get themselves integrated into life as we know it before investment looks like inopportune extravagance.

WiMAX, Proximity Power, NFC, UWB, White Space and Zigbee are just a few of the technologies that have managed to raise enough money to get beyond prototypes and into real products - but that's not going to be enough when pockets get lighter and even geeks start to think twice before investing in the latest tech. With this in mind, we present El Reg's guide to what's not going to make it out the other side of the forthcoming crunch.

Taking Wi to the MAX

WiMAX is a prime example: despite deployments in Russia and America the technology has resolutely failed to achieve the kind of penetration that would drive down costs through mass production. Cheap electronics are manufactured in millions, not thousands, and WiMAX just isn't achieving those numbers.

Long Term Evolution (LTE) leapfrogs WiMAX and has been endorsed by all the important networks; the first-to-market lead that was supposed to be the advantage of WiMAX has been whittled away by lack of credit and resistance by the incumbent operators that has extended into legal challenges. The LTE standard is pretty much finished, and 2009 will see the first headline-grabbing deployments, with astounding data rates over tiny coverage areas - but enough to kill off any interest in WiMAX.

Nortel has already pulled out of WiMAX development, and others will follow as LTE increasingly comes to dominate. But WiMAX will go down fighting, and probably continue to exist in some markets especially as a fixed-wireless technology. Unlike the most hyped-technology story of the last six months - the opening of White Space, which will simply disappear from view without note.

You are leaving the White Room

Dancing telephone

White space was promoted as "Wi-Fi on steroids" - after all, everyone Wi-Fi is good, so "Wi-Fi on steroids" must be even better, no? But squeezing between TV channels is hard, and avoiding other white space users dynamically is really hard - so the exploitation of White Space won't see a utopian Wi-Fi with a range of miles as some have predicted, nor free internet for all.

So useless are white space devices at detecting existing users, the big question now concerns who gets to run the database that every white space device is going to have to consult before switching on - hardly intelligent radios.

White space will be used, but for fixed-wireless connections such as backhauling temporary installations, or connecting rural offices a few miles apart in non-critical environments. Using white space will make wireless more ubiquitous, in the US at least, but don't expect to see consumer devices exploiting the gaps between TV channels any time soon.

Field Communications isn't getting any nearer

Devices exploiting NFC - Near Field Communications - will come into existence, but that won't be enough to rescue the technology from an ignominious end. Despite broadening the technical standard to incorporate just about every proximity technology out there, NFC has failed to make any inroads beyond a handset or two from Nokia - champions of the technology and owners of several patents in the area.

The problem for NFC is that the network operators who pay for, and thus choose, the technologies that go into handsets can see no revenue stream, and thus no reason why they should pay for it. They could have embedded payment systems into the SIM, taken advantage of their position to push the Single Wire Protocol into handsets and brought proximity payment systems into mobile phones - but the network operators have enough on their plates without becoming banks, so the idea has never found the support it needs.

Proximity payment systems will continue to exist, and Nokia will no doubt continue to claim they are all "NFC compatible"; but that will only be true by virtue of the inclusive nature of the standard, and we won't be buying groceries by waving our phones near a sensor any more than we'll be charging them that way.

Wireless power fails to deliver

Wireless Power Logo

Wireless charging is second only to Nerf guns in the pointless-gadgets-for-the-sake-of-the-technology stakes. And, just as with Nerf guns, when things are going well punters might shell out a premium for the cool factor of being able to bombard their colleagues with foam darts, or avoid plugging in their kit - but these days it looks like a pointless extravagance.

There will be applications where wireless power delivery used: we'll not be plugging our electric toothbrushes in any time soon. Proximity power also makes a nice product differentiator for Palm's Pre, but the idea of mats onto which we dump all our gadgets for charging is no more than a pipe dream.

We're talking about an industry that can't agree what shape a battery should be, and won't standardise on power connectors despite such a standard being endorsed by just about every industry body and even mandated by a country or two. Even when there was money in the pot it was pretty unlikely everyone was going to agree on a wireless-charging standard, and now the pot's looking distinctly depleted, we're hoping that the push for a standard plug does gain some momentum while wireless power delivery disappears for a decade or two.

Ultra-Wide, but pointless

Speaking of plugging things in - Ultra-Wideband is another cable-replacement technology that's looking distinctly unstable in the new economic climate. It's a shame as UWB is a nice technology for delivering hugely fast connections at very short range: if we had an awful lot of data we wanted to transfer over a short distance and had lost the ability to plug in a cable, then UWB is the technology we would choose.

Bluetooth version 3 incorporates UWB, based on the WiMedia stack, but operating above 6GHz so that's a few years away anyway. Wireless USB is available today; using UWB to deliver USB-style connectivity, but USB cables aren't that difficult to deal with, and often deliver power as well as data - something Wireless USB can't emulate.

Ultra Wideband will continue to exist in a few niche applications - such as delivering HD video to stupidly-thin wall-hanging TVs with suitably stupid price tags, but most of us will continue to use cables for shuttling video around the place and plug in our video cameras when we want to watch our latest masterpieces.

Once the dust settles the UWB will probably come back, branded as Bluetooth version 3 and operating in the higher frequency bands which are currently still cost-prohibitive. But it will have to launch again, as by that time we'll all but have forgotten the joys of 400Mb/sec transfers over 10cm distances.

Low power, lower utility

Z-Wave Logo

Equally forgettable will be Zigbee, Z-Wave and the idea of home automation through mesh radios: another cool idea that just isn't important enough to be worth spending money on. The idea is to have very low power modules; battery lives measured in years, that link themselves together and provide the kind of remote control not seen since the 70s - when automatically dimming lights, drawing curtains and switching on the 8-track player for a bit of Barry was the quickest way into a woman's favours.

Zigbee kit from different manufacturers still doesn't play nicely together, and Z-Wave will set you back 35 quid for a plug socket - so the above example could easily cost you 200 quid (not including the curtains or the 8-track player), and that's for something unlikely to impress anyone born in the last three decades.

Zigbee will continue to exist in industrial deployments where cross-manufacturer compatibility isn't so important, but Z-Wave is unlikely to achieve the kind of mass-production that could get the price down to something sensible. In these straitened times, remote-controlled curtains aren't likely to be a priority.

Brighter spots

But it's not all bad news. Some technologies have established themselves, and others have achieved enough momentum to ensure they will become an essential part of our lives.

3G has become usable, and ubiquitous as long as you don't venture too far from civilisation. That (and the iPhone) has driven a new generation of mobile browsers that are making the web usable from just about anywhere. 3G coverage is about to expand hugely thanks to femtocell technology; self configuring base stations don't just let users install their own, but also make expansion of the macro network much cheaper.

Bluetooth has also enjoyed the boom, with stereo-profile being de rigeur on every mobile device except the iPhone and some more interesting Bluetooth apps being exemplified by the Redfly.

We're about to experience a huge boom in wireless technologies, thanks to the digital dividend and the underlying changes in the way society views radio spectrum: as private property that may be bought and sold. That should see all sorts of interesting business models evolve the majority of which will no doubt fail - but those that survive will become so much part of our lives that next time the economy collapses, we'll no more think of getting rid of them that anyone today is considering dumping their mobile phone to save their pennies. ®