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GigaOm's title says it all: "The Wi-Fi Juggernaut Rolls on, Crushing Startups": Stacey Higginbotham writes that the cooperative agreement between the Wi-Fi Alliance and WiGig Alliance to harmonize 60 GHz wireless networking standards spells doom, despair, and agony for any competing efforts.
For Ars Technica in February 2009, I looked at what was once six and had settled to three competing approaches for wireless high-definition video.
Since then, UWB dropped out as a competitive offering for wireless high-def, and that left us with just Amimon's WHDI, which works in 5 GHz, and SiBeam's 60 GHz flavor standardized under WirelessHD.
I have been dubious about WHDI, because it relies on organized degradation to push through gigabits per second over a medium that should be able to carry no more than 600 Mbps with today's networking technology. Amimon is clever, but clever don't necessarily feed the bulldog.
SiBeam, however, should be able to deliver a complementary technology to the WiGig/Wi-Fi effort; WiGig and Wi-Fi aren't looking at wireless video, but at PC and consumer electronics networking.
On a related note, Dana Blankenhorn at ZDNet says that "governments...must approve use of the frequency spectrum" in 60 GHz, which is incorrect. Many regulators, including the FCC, have already approved large swaths of unlicensed use in 60 GHz. The real issue among different countries and regulatory domains is the amount of 60 GHz bandwidth, not whether it's available.
Update: I received a press release later in the morning trumpeting chipset figures. "Amimon announced it has surpassed half a million units in chipset sales and orders." Sales and orders. Huh. "Also, Amimon will pass the 1 million chipset sales milestone by Holiday Season of this year." Sales predictions.
Netgear hasn't set the price of its new paired HD video adapters, but promises 99.9 percent reliability for multiple 1080p streams: The High-Performance Wireless-N HD Home Theater Kit, which will ship in Q3 2010, uses a 4-by-4 MIMO array to achieve the results Netgear claims, and I'm inclined to believe them. The company says it can push 40 Mpbs across multiple streams using these adapters, with the video sources being the Internet, IPTV systems, or other devices on the network. The adapters plug into Ethernet ports, and have a simple pairing mechanism.
The 4-by-4 array over 5 GHz coupled with the paired adapter method means that Netgear doesn't need to focus on throughput but coverage and consistency. The extra antennas let them use space-time block coding and other techniques to boost marginal signals and reduce errors in transmission. The device doesn't compress data, so the entire goal is to achieve sustained throughput.
Of course, Netgear could charge $500 for the pair, which would make them ridiculous, but I suspect a price closer to $250 based on how other devices have been marketed in the past, and the target audience for these products. A third adapter can apparently be used to extend coverage further.
Netgear also announced a May release at $79 of the 802.11n (2.4 GHz) Universal WiFi [sic] Internet Adapter, a driver-free Ethernet-to-Wi-Fi bridge that can be powered by a USB port even though no data is handled over USB (it saves a power adapter). The notion here is that instead of buying branded, proprietary adapters, you can just plug into Ethernet.
Computerworld reports that Aircell will offer movie rentals while in flight via its Wi-Fi network: I have been predicting this for umpty-umpty years, because if you have storage and a delivery system and content and a captive, bored audience, you have an incredible recipe for video sales.
This goes beyond the crummy seatback displays--no matter how good they are, they're still crummy compared to all other visual displays we use routinely. Yes, you can buy a movie or watch in-flight programming, but it's not the same as having a large library to draw on (not dozens but thousands of films and TV shows), and--as Aircell describes it--being able to take the content with you.
Computerworld reports the service will be launched in 2010 with Windows support only, and films will cost $2 to $4. One expects only SD quality to keep the file size low. Aircell told me a while ago that it had overengineered airplane wireless LAN for essentially this kind of purpose: robust delivery of content.
At the highest possible 802.11n rates, a single user on an access point could download a 1 GB movie in just over a minute. In practice, it's likely to be several minutes, but nearly all movie purchase systems start playing with only the first few megabytes of content download. (The start of most movies are highly compressible title sequences or credits, I was told by a delivery firm once.)
I don't know how such video delivery systems compete with existing in-flight entertainment system contracts. Not all planes that will have Wi-Fi have any or robust in-flight entertainment. Alaska Airlines, which has committed to Row 44, has notably eschewed audio and video content to keep planes cheaper to buy and maintain.
But Delta, Virgin America, United, and others have systems in place, and I wonder if they can simply shunt sales from one medium to another without having to renegotiate vendor deals.
In any case, video purchases over an in-plane network increases the value of that network beyond the pure Internet revenue.
The WHDI Consortium has finished a spec for running 1080p at 60 GHz and 12 bits over 5 GHz spectrum: It's not Wi-Fi, nor anything remotely like it, but the WHDI spec uses 40 MHz channels in the 5 GHz band to carry the equivalent of 3 Gbps as far as 100 feet. This new spec, based on work from Amimon, which developed the technology, boosts resolution fro 720p in the previous version to 1080p. It also supports HDCP, the digital rights management (DRM) specification that's used with wired HDMI to ensure end-to-end protection of content.
I wrote about the several contending wireless high-definition specifications in contention back in February 2009 for Ars Technica, including this detailed explanation of how the WHDI/Amimon system works.
While 5 GHz Wi-Fi using 40 MHz channels can only claim with 2x2 MIMO and two data streams to deliver a raw data rate of 300 Mbps, WHDI will deliver 3 Gbps. Because they aren't.
From the press release: the new spec "supports the delivery of equivalent video data rates of
up to 3Gbps." That's equivalent.
WHDI uses a clever system of representing visually more important data in the encoding such that it's more likely to get through in the worst circumstances. Ever less significant information is encoded in methods that are ever more susceptible to interface. The more noise, the less insignificant information gets through.
But that's where you have that equivalent: during the best transmission times, the WHDI Consortium's spec will be able to push through what looks like uncompressed 1080p; during the worst, something far lower than that. It's unclear whether best efforts will win the day.
The competitor for WHDI is pretty clearly WirelessHD, backed by SiBeam, which uses 60 GHz millimeter-wave signals for as much as several Gbps (real Gbps, not equivalent) for each of several channels. The 60 GHz signals are limited to within one room, and have some non-line-of-site and obstruction issues; the 5 GHz service can work over longer distances, but the WHDI probably doesn't want to go into any great depth on how rapidly a signal degrades providing an equivalent bandwidth that's far below 3 Gbps.
The WHDI Consortium was set up by Amimon, Hitachi, Motorola, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and LG Electronics. Those are some pretty big names in the consumer electronics space. The WirelessHD group also, oddly, includes Samsung, Sony, and LG, as well as Philips, Intel, NEC, and Toshiba, and a host of chipmakers including Intel and Broadcom.
The Wireless Gigabit Alliance (WiGig) brings together 17 tech firms for 60 GHz streaming video, LAN standards: The 60 GHz unlicensed band, available for use in various forms worldwide, can carry Gbps of data, but there hasn't been unity about how to proceed. The new WiGig group will focus on streaming video (SiBeam is the leader in this band already), wireless LAN (the IEEE already has a 60 GHz working group underway), and docking/synchronization--a replacement for UWB, which hasn't lit up the market yet, but is at least available right now.
Multi-Gbps wireless LAN networking would be a hoot in the home, especially as we push data to networked storage devices and move ever-larger video and photo files around, but the standard's real potential is in providing for lossless high-definition streaming alongside these other purposes.
The group has been working together for a year, and chose this moment to makes its public debut. A standard is due out in fourth quarter, with testing to follow. WiGig intends to bring its work to the IEEE group on 60 GHz wireless LAN (802.11ad), and many WiGig members are also Wi-Fi Alliance members and IEEE participants. It's possible that 802.11ad will look a lot or entirely like WiGig. WiGig will also create a testing plan and carry out certification.
Bill McFarland, chief technical officer at Atheros, said in an interview today that it's clear consumers will wind up moving increasingly more data around the home. "People will end up with large files and high data rate streams. They're going to want to be able to move it flexibly," he said. Rather than have multiple chips dedicated to different purposes, WiGig is trying to unite it all under one banner.
McFarland noted that 60 GHz has a big advantage: 7 GHz of available in the U.S. and much of the world. "This very broad piece of bandwidth that we can use without licenses, without paying, and it allows us to use it in kind of big chunks, where we can get to very high data rates"--multiple gigabits per second.
The high data rates allow uncompressed HD video--roughly 3 Gbps--which avoids the current expense, possible image degradation, and latency of adding H.264 chips or other compression hardware between the transmitter and receiver.
The WiGig group isn't intending its standard as a Wi-Fi competitor; 60 GHz attenuates rapidly and doesn't penetrate objects well. This limits it to mostly in-room purposes. Wi-Fi in 802.11n can work well throughout a house. The idea of tri-band (2.4/5/60 GHz) chips seems like a reasonable path to take.
I asked McFarland how this 60 GHz effort would avoid the pitfalls of ultrawideband's rocky 7-year road to potential oblivion. He noted that there's no other spectrum available that enables multiple Gbps, and that by bringing together a set of companies involved through the development and marketing chain they can avoid the strife that delayed and may have doomed UWB.
When UWB was initially proposed, the FCC hadn't approved it. Ultimately, regulators worldwide allow UWB, but some have highly restricted the spectrum range, which reduces the number of simultaneous networks and devices, and requires more flexibility in product design. The 60 GHz effort starts with worldwide regulation already in place.
Ultimately, UWB took so long from design to market that "the data rates that UWB offered were not significantly higher than what could be achieved using 11n technology, so there was no strong, compulsive drive" to put UWB in hardware. (UWB started to make noise when Wi-Fi's highest rate was 11 Mbps, remember.)
Mark Grodzinsky, the marketing vice president of startup Wilocity, a firm that will develop chips and reference (and someone who was deeply involved in reconciling 802.11n into a viable standard), said of the 13 firms on the board of directors, "This is a group of companies that really knows how to do this and has done it before very well." Combined, they sell billions of wireless chips each year.
The intent with WiGig is to have several key differentiators that make the technology have multiple factors that can't be achieved with anything today, and that aren't likely to be achieved by any other technology the drawing board. This includes the high speed, but also the notion of multiple applications using a single radio. (This is how Bluetooth has managed to thrive, and it was one of the intents of the WiMedia Alliance for UWB.)
Grodzinsky described wireless docking and wireless display as two capabilities that are highly limited with any technology today. If you have a device capable of eSATA, gigabit Ethernet, and multiple USB streams, but the dock connection is 480 Mbps USB 2.0 or even wireless USB, performance is highly throttled down. A wireless display isn't really possible.
WiGig was also conceived with handheld devices front and center: characteristics that keep power use low are part of the spec from the get-go. Grodzinsky said, for instance, that error correction schemes are only used if errors need to be corrected; other wireless burn cycles on fixing errors when they don't exist.
WiGig's board of directors includes major chipmakers in the wireless space (Atheros, Broadcom, Intel, and Marvell), handset firms (LG, Nokia, and Samsung), PC-focused companies (Dell, Intel, and Microsoft), and consumer electronics manufacturers (NEC, Panasonic, and Samsung). Note there's some overlap among those firms' markets, too. Notably absent is Apple, which rarely joins standards groups at their inception, but is often an early adopter and later board member. Sony is also missing from this list. (Four other firms are "contributors" and not on the board, including more chipmakers.)
SiBeam is also not on the list, although its backers Panasonic and Samsung are. SiBeam is part of the WirelessHD Consortium, which is backed by six firms in the WiGig group, plus Sony and Toshiba. There will have to be a merger or some kind of close association between WirelessHD and WiGig because no TV set or computer will have two sets of chips, and WirelessHD doesn't have a data-transfer focus.
Gefen's first foray into ultrawideband didn't pan out: Gefen (along with Belkin) preannounced UWB-based cable-free USB hubs using Freescale chips way way back in Jan. 2006. Gefen abandoned the attempt entirely, but comes back to market with UWB-based HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) extenders. HDMI couples audio and video in a single cable, and can wrap encryption (HDCP) on top of that if required by content owners. They're using Tzero chips to extend HDMI over UWB. It'll ship in June for $750 for a pair.
Belkin will ship a USB-over-802.11n hub in June for $130: This 802.11n-based USB extender requires host software for Windows. It has five ports. Mac software is due in August.
Belkin, by the way, has been promising its revised UWB Wireless USB four-port hub with host dongle setup since last year, when Popular Science gave it a best product award. The last update says the product would ship Jan. 12, which did not happen.
Windows Vista has a napping problem: I've been reading about an issue regarding low-power and brief sleep modes in "802.11" and "Wi-Fi" (used sometimes inaccurately as interchangeable commodities) for days now to understand what Microsoft did right or wrong in how they configured Vista to save battery power when using Wi-Fi. Ars Technica, as usual, has the right combination of technical detail and comprehensibility.
The story started as if Vista would "drain" batteries, which made little sense. Reading the original coverage in TechWeb and a Microsoft blog post on the matter didn't enlighten me. Why would any Vista setting use more power than XP SP2? Surely, XP SP2 has an optimized, but inferior set of options for Wi-Fi, because Vista is reported to offer better control over networking and wireless usage. (The Microsoft blog post has been deleted, by the way, with no placeholder. The TechWeb story has quotes from the blog.)
The discussion of "802.11 power save" made things even murkier. The Wi-Fi Alliance approved a test to certify part of 802.11e known as WMM (Wireless Multimedia). WMM as a whole deals with prioritizing packets in different queues so that voice packets can be given priority over ordinary data, and streaming data packets likewise. These queues are only part of the answer--ask Ruckus Wireless and others about that--but within 802.11e, there's an option for reducing power usage through cleverer brief naps while a transceiver isn't active. The alliance calls this WMM Power Save, and just a few devices currently carry that certification standard. (T-Mobile's HotSpot@Home service offers a D-Link router with WMM Power Save for this reason to preserve battery life on its UMA [unlicensed mobile access] handsets that work over Wi-Fi or cellular networks for calls.)
These tiny naps can add up. By catching a few milliseconds here and there, the Wi-Fi Alliance has estimated a 15 to 40 percent improvement in battery life over regular Wi-Fi. This will be significant in phones, games, and cameras where every electron counts.
So what's "802.11 power save"? Ars Technica notes that a power save mode appears in 802.11 specifications, and that different vendors have implemented this in different ways. Vista's default setting for its last version before the product was actually installed on hard drives heading to corporate customers was "Medium Power," which made adapters use this older, uncertified, non-interoperable mode. Because adapters and access points from different manufacturers--perhaps just different models--handle this power save feature differently, "Medium Power" would find APs sending packets when adapters were sleeping.
In the release to manufacture (RTM) version of Vista actually pushed out the door, the setting was change to "Maximum Performance," which disables sleep, and provides the most compatibility. It's unclear whether that setting would disable WMM Power Save--that might be implemented at a lower layer of the stack and only work with compatible devices.
I'm trying to make sense of Ruckus's rural strategy for its IPTV products: The company uses multiple-antenna technology combined with proprietary streaming algorithms to provide voice, video, and data (802.11b/g compatible) across a home. The rural angle is intriguing, because rural telephone companies want to bring newer services (and higher per-customer revenue for the same wired infrastructure), but they can't afford to rewire homes to handle the network for multimedia and VoIP traversing a house.
Enter Ruckus. They say that because their system can carry streaming video and deliver other services, they're the perfect complement for rural telcos. The telco still does a truck roll, but Ruckus claims its MediaFlex system of gateways and adapters takes under an hour to install, and future additions can avoid a truck roll.
An hour is a pretty nice bar to set to keep costs low, and compares favorably to other home installs. A DirecTV installation at my house required two installers and about an hour to mount a satellite antenna, set up the receiver, and train us on the system. Obviously, the satellite industry considers an hour a profitable installation when factoring in lifetime customer value.
By contrast, in a DSL textbook I read nearly a decade ago, new telco services weren't considered profitable by large phone companies until they reached the point when only five percent required truck rolls. It took DSL and cable years to reach the point where most installs involve just sending a modem out. This has changed completely again with triple-play services, as Ruckus notes.
The latest press release from Ruckus notes 16 more rural telcos in addition to several they'd already signed.