From the component and chip level through test and end-product design, communications systems are evolving to handle more data, provide in-home coverage, and monitor utility services.
The widespread popularity of Apple's iPhone and other smart phones indicates that consumers want to shoot and send videos, watch mobile television, and network from their wireless devices. The resulting push for fourth-generation (4G) services is driving handset makers, infrastructure providers, and others to quicken the pace of innovation. From incorporating multiple standards into base stations to designing multimode smartphones, they are struggling to simultaneously raise integration, performance, and efficiency. Complicating matters is consideration of the smart grid, which some speculate may use the cellular infrastructure to monitor home energy usage. All of these issues place pressure on measurement equipment manufacturers, which must stay one step ahead of the devices they test.
Much is happening in terms of Long Term Evolution (LTE). For example, MetroPCS recently launched the first 4G LTE services in the US. The carrier is offering talk, text, and 4G web access. Multimedia content available on its commercially available 4G handset, the Samsung Craft, includes premium video content from NBC Universal and Univisionboth on demand and on the go (Fig. 1). In addition, a social-networking and instant-messaging aggregation application harnesses notifications, friends, and content from the Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter social networks. For AIM, MSN, and Yahoo! instant-messenger (IM) clients, a single interface allows access with one click. Plus, an upgraded MetroNavigator feature allows consumers to take advantage of voice-activated Global-Positioning-System (GPS) and turn-by-turn directions.
Verizon Wireless is launching LTE later this year with a much larger networkmost likely with Universal Serial Bus (USB) modems rather than handsets. AT&T plans to launch LTE late this year and in mid-2011. According to Informa Telecoms & Media, the US will be the largest LTE market in the world through 2015. The US LTE market is expected to have 1.5 million subscribers at the end of next year and more than 70 million at the end of 2015.
Internationally, LTE also is gaining traction. In Russia, for example, Yota recently built a city-wide network in Kazan. The network trial was launched with a number of live demonstrations proving wireless broadband speeds to 100 MB/s (in a lab environment with only one device running per sector). Its suite of next-generation wireless services includes live three-dimensional (3D) video conferencing and full high-definition (HD) video streaming.
At the Shanghai World Expo 2010 this past August, Motorola announced that it is working with Innofidei and Sequans for chipset/ terminal solutions to demonstrate a high-quality video wall including 24 simultaneous video streams, remote monitoring, and high-speed Internetbrowsing applications running on the Motorola time-division LTE (TD-LTE) network (Fig. 2). Motorola also garnered attention by running and scheduling multiple devices with multiple vendors on a single sector. In addition, LTE timedivision- duplex (TDD) products were recently demonstrated by QUALCOMM using its Mobile Data Modem (MDM) MDM9200 solution and taking place over-the-air with a 2x2 multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) configuration in the 2.3-GHz band. QUALCOMM plans to begin mobility trials of products based on LTE TDD later this year in conjunction with multiple operators worldwide.
Reference designs also are becoming available, such as Altair Semiconductor's TD-LTE terminal reference design for use in products like USB dongles, customer premise equipment (CPE), and handheld devices. The reference design features Altair's Four- Gee-3100/6200 chipset and an LTE software stack. Spectrum bands supported include India's recently auctioned TDLTE band 40 and China's band 38.
As engineering firms push LTE forward, they are forced to integrate many new approaches and alleviate novel pressure points. Bob Van Buskirk, President of RFMD's () Multi- Market Products Group, summarizes, "RF component suppliers for infrastructure equipment, such as RFMD, will continue to broaden product portfolios addressing multiple cellular standards and software-defined-radio (SDR) platforms to assist the operators in their migration to 4G technologies. A driving force in network equipment designs, and in turn for RF components, will be the ongoing need to reduce energy consumption for both wireless and wired networks. RF components will require higher performance at better efficiencies and lower power consumption. In addition, communications service providers are moving toward Internet-protocol (IP) architectures, offering high-speed, mobile, and fixed broadband services. These drivers are defining the landscape of both the telecommunications equipment and handset markets." Smart phones in particular will drive integration levels that require higher-performance, more efficient RF component designs.
In terms of backhaul, Van Buskirk notes that equipment demand is often served today by wireline networks. He states, "We believe mobile backhaul will naturally migrate to microwave-based Ethernet and Ethernet fiber due to the cost advantages these technologies offer network operators. Wireless-network backhaul architectures will be comprised of a mix of both residential and enterprise based nodes. This natural evolution to wireless Ethernet and then fiber directly to cell sites will offer network operators, consumers, and enterprises the bandwidth required for improved broadband services supporting new mobile-broadband technologies, such as LTE."
Ashish Sharma, VP Marketing at Alvarion, says that cellular communications is going through a major transformation as the networks shift from the legacy circuitswitched technologies to all-IP, packetbased network architectures based on 4G technologies like WiMAX and LTE. Sharma notes, "The cellular networks continue to enhance their radio spectral efficiencies through a myriad of new technologies that allow the radio channel to send more data without sacrificing the quality of service. In addition, the radio channels are getting broader as the shift toward broadband services takes place. These new enhancements include major innovations in antenna technologies that significantly increase the coverage and capacity of the wireless networks. Such antenna schemes include AAS, MIMO, and beamforming techniques."
Certainly, these new design techniques will help to provide faster and richer data rates so that users can enjoy their new capabilities. Yet the question remains whether carriers will be able to roll out sufficient infrastructuredue to either geographical constraints or budgetto allow service to truly reach individuals. Most models point to the femtocell as the solution to this problem. These smaller base stations would serve the individual home, allowing users to connect to the service provider's network and thus making it possible for service providers to extend coverage indoors.
By collaborating with Cambridge Consultants, picoChip just enhanced its PC960x LTE development platform for "small-cell" base-station architectures (dubbed Home eNode B). The firm also unveiled a chip called the PC333, which is designed to extend the femtocell into the realm of public-access infrastructure, such as metro and rural femto systems. In doing so, the PC333 enables small base stations for urban hot-spots, city centers, or public access to be made and deployed at a lower cost than traditional approaches.
The PC333 system-on-a-chip (SoC) supports 32 channels (scalable to 64) for simultaneous voice and HSPA+ data. It also supports MIMO and soft-handover while conforming to the Local Area Basestation (LABS) standard. LABS is the 3GPP definition for systems with higher performance than home base stations, allowing higher capacity, 120-km/hour mobility, and +24-dBm output power for greater than 2-km range. The PC333 supports 32 channelseach with voice and HSPA+ data. It supports in excess of 400 simultaneous smart-phone users. Two of the devices can be cascaded to support 64 active channels.
Although some folks have negated the validity of the femtocell model, picoChip expects to see 50 million femtocells ship in 2014. Aside from LTE-inspired growth, femtocell makers expect to get an additional boon from the US smart grid and the energymonitoring solutions that are planned for rollout in other countries. According to Andy Tiller, VP Marketing at ip.access, "As cellular networks adopt LTE solutions and move to all-IP backbone networks, then home cells, such as femtocells, become even more integral to the marketing of new servicesincluding smart-grid or smartpower solutions. Femtocells guarantee better coverage in homes and offices, boost overall network capacity, offload traffic from the core network to ease congestion, and extend battery life by reducing power requirements."
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This past June, for example, ip.access and AlertMe.com demonstrated how femtocells can be integrated into smarthome energy-management solutions. The AlertMe Energy service can automatically detect when phones enter or leave the house and power down lights, televisions, and other home appliances when the house is empty. The service can also switch the services back on when the residents return. The ip.access femtocellpowered service enables mobile phones to control electrical devices in different parts of the house using a series of commands and automatic triggers. The demo also shows how the AlertMe Hub can be integrated inside a femtocell access point, receiving its power and Internet connection through the femtocell. In this way, a mobile operator could offer a smart-home energy-management solution as an integrated option to its femtocell subscribers.
Although the femtocell model has been shown to work, the question remains: Will wireless-networking support for the smart grid be done via a proprietary solution or existing cellular networks Fig. 3(a) and (b)>? The answer will most likely come down to the cost and effort involved in building out such a network from scratch versus the price that the cellular providers will charge. Rupert Baines, VP of Marketing at picoChip, states, "Smart grid is another application that runs over cellularnothing special. I can see low-power GSM being used in smart grid, with the femtocell acting as the home master."
Others, however, predict that utilities will build their own private network rather than use public networks from mobile operators. Alvarion's Sharma notes, "Today, utilities have an option to create their own customized 4G WiMAX network that can allow them to fulfill their communication needs through a unified, all-IP architecture." For example, Grid Net just announced that it is collaborating with Sprint to deliver a solution that leverages Grid Net's software platforms to connect smart meters and smart-grid routers via the Sprint 4G network. Sprint will explore putting embedded WiMAX connectivity into smart meters and smart-grid routers.
WiMAX is only one of a myriad of communications technologies that already are being used for the smart grid. RFMD's Van Buskirk notes, "Wireless network operators currently provide backhaul services for smart grid in some geographic regions. Most smart-grid networks are either power-line based or wireless, utilizing wireless technologies like WiFi, GSM/CDMA, ZigBee, and WiMAX."
RF-component companies must therefore support a wide range of applications to assist in smart-grid rollouts. Chip-set makers also are impacted. On-Ramp Wireless' VP of Strategic Marketing, Jonas Olsen, states, "For this system, "the focus is on a low-power, wireless chipset designed for integration with devices in the smart grid. Examples are electric, gas and water meters, distribution grid sensors, and streetlight-monitoring systems. Competition and the general silicon cost curve will drive these end-node costs down toward parity, and the overall competition will be on network infrastructure (installation, operation, and maintenance) and ease of system adoption."
The industry also should keep in mind that wireline technologies may very well have a big role in the smart grid. Telcordia's Ray Barison notes, "The cellular industry, both 3G and 4G (LTE and WiMAX) will definitely play a role in smart-grid communications globally, but there are and will be other options including traditional fiber and microwave-based IP, SONET/SDH, and DWDM wireline communications technologies. There are many different aspects of the smart-grid communications network. For example, wireless mesh technology seems to be gaining traction in multiple smart-meter rollouts. Fiber to the distribution substation is common and growing. There is also the need for wireless field-area networks for mobile communications between the field workers and information systems as well as remote control, monitoring, and communications between sensors, cameras, and other intelligent IP-based devices and their centralized/regionalized information management systems."
As has often been the case for wireless communications, the future is still muddy in that no one knows exactly how some capabilities will be enabled. Interestingly, however, the path of communications technologies seems rather certain right now. The industry is moving toward 4G and all of the data-centric services that it enables, and there is a good chance that femtocells will be a solid part of the 4G network. At the same time, energy monitoring is an area in which countries across the world are investing. These monitoring solutions must rely on a blend of cellular or proprietary infrastructure, open standards like WiMAX, shortrange technologies like ZigBee, and even wireline technologies.
It is likely that cellular networks will be part of the smart grid and therefore must add its needs to their evolution plans as well. Such varied, simultaneous demands will mean that test and measurement companies are under increasing pressure to enable designers to verify that their multimode, multifunction devices and networks work as promised (see sidebar, "Test And Equipment Makers Face Communications Demands Head On"). As the future becomes increasingly clear, however, they should be able to better predict designers' needs and aid the forward growth of communications.