RealTime IT News

Intel Faces a Space Race

SAN FRANCISO - Good things come in small packages, but sometimes there are just too many. That's the challenge facing designers of mobile devices and even notebook computers trying to keep up with the multitude of wireless standards and technologies to support it.

"We have an exploding number of radio standards to deal with," said Kevin Kahn, senior fellow and director of the communications technology lab at Intel. "There's Wi-Fi, WiMAX , GPS, cellular, Bluetooth, Ultrawideband (UWB) and a never-ending collection of standards. And then there's also an ungodly number of different frequency bands these things operate at."

Kahn briefed a small group of reporters here Thursday on some of Intel's  work in the wireless area and the challenges it faces. It's not just a case of supporting different wireless technologies, but making them all work - and fit - in increasing small mobile devices.

Intel and others are working on so-called ultramobile devices that have the functionality or near-functionality of a PC, but are small enough to be carried around in your pocket. But Kahn said even outfitting a standard notebook PC is becoming problematic.

As notebook designs get thinner and lighter, "there's amazingly little space" to cram in multiple pieces of communications hardware and the shielding, even if it's only a millimeter thick, to make it all work without interference.

Kahn said if you open a typical PC notebook you'll find a "very noisy environment" full of electromagnetic noise and circuits oscillating at high speeds.

But the real challenge is small devices. "There's no question Intel believes in the future of the 'Internet in your pocket'," Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin told internetnews.com. "And the only way to do that is with a rich, multilayered approach to wireless connectivity.

"The good news is the way the market and the FCC are driving this next generation of ubiquitous connectivity which will be around Wi-Fi and WiMAX when it's not carrier-based."

Intel was an early backer of the Wi-Fi wireless standard and its integration and promotion of that technology is credited with helping to establish it as standard in notebook PCs. Kahn said Intel continues to work and invest in the area because traditional PC manufacturers are not well equipped to integrate these very small components and make them all work. "The industry and Intel has to sort through this mess and do things like squeeze antennas into smaller form factors," said Kahn.

Limiting frequencies or different wireless standards is not a practical option because it limits the potential market for these mobile devices. "It'd be a lot easier if we said we don't like this or that band, but if folks want it, we have to provide it," said Kahn.

Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart said there will be tradeoffs for the foreseeable future. "Cellular is relatively ubiquitous, but there are hard tariffs and relatively slow speeds," Greengart told internetnews.com.

"Wi-Fi can be free if it's your account or on a corporate campus and it's high speed, but it's not ubiquitous. Bluetooth is very local. We're going to get continuous connectivity with things like WiMAX and different use cases for different technology."