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ISSCC: Wireless favored by home-net panel
By Stephan Ohr
EE Times
(02/09/00, 2:07 p.m. EST)

SAN FRANCISCO — Participants in a panel session at this year's International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) seemed to feel that wireless technologies — particularly variations on the IEEE
802.11 standard — offer the best possibilities for convenience in home-networking applications. Wireless solutions would not only overcome users' objections to stringing cables and connectors, but also offer business users the ability to integrate their office laptops conveniently into a home network.

Five of the seven panelists seemed to gravitate toward this position — despite audience concerns for the seemingly high costs of wireless nodes, and the current bandwidth limitations of Bluetooth and HomeRF wireless solutions.

A show-of-hands survey suggested that approximately 30 members of the 350-person audience were currently home network users, but only three of those were using some form of wireless technology.

Home networking is so much in its infancy, one of the panelists suggested, that these 30 people were not just "early adopters," but part of a technology lunatic fringe. Many of these "lunatics" admitted that they strung Category 5 wiring for twisted-pair Ethernet in their homes.

Panelists taking the minority point of view — that wired technology would dominate in home nets — included Jack Holloway, a founder of the Epigram Division of Broadcom Corp. (Sunnyvale, Calif.), and Alberto Mantovani, strategic program director with the Personal
Computing Division of Conexant Systems Inc. (Newport Beach, Calif.). "The dirty secret is that consumers won't buy home networks," Holloway said. "But onsumers will buy products with networks built in. They shouldn't care whether it's wired or wireless."

If the goal is to distribute broadband Internet access through the home, wired distribution systems — like HomePNA's 10-Mbits/second version 2.0 of the home phone line specification — offer the best possibilities for high data rates, Holloway said. Wireless transmission
schemes, moreover, would be much more subject to interference, he said.

Conexant's Mantovani showed forecast figures that seemed to suggest that power-line network users in the United States would outnumber phone line network users ten-to-one. If home network usage is viewed on the same evolutionary scale as life forms on Earth, Mantovani said we are currently in some "Cenozoic" era analogous to 2 million to 5 million years ago. "The 'big bang' hasn't even happened yet," he said. But the evolution of the network "life forms" will show many different topologies, including combinations of both wired and wireless access systems, he said.

Wireless tilt
But Prism scientist Brent Myers of Intersil (Palm Bay, Fla.), wireless systems researcher Ran-Hong Yan of Lucent Technologies Bell Labs (Swindon, England) and analog expert Sven Mattison of Ericsson Mobile Communications (Lund, Sweden) helped tilt the panel heavily toward wireless. "Wireless allows mobility," said Mattison. "The user can bring his laptop to the sofa."

Intersil's Myers claimed that 802.11 would support multimedia transmissions and broadband home distribution with 11-Mbits/s data rates. (And new modulation schemes could boost wireless data rates to 100 Mbits/s, he said.) Semiconductor volumes would soon bring the cost of an 11-Mbits/s 802.11 transceiver into the $100 range, he said.

Lucent's Yan was even more aggressive, suggesting that the cost per node of a wireless LAN will drop below $50, and perhaps as low as $5, within the next few years. Currently, there are 62 million U.S. households with PCs, said Yan. Some 20 million have more than one
PC, but only 5 percent of those are using networks in their home. In 2003, there will be 70 million PC households, 26 million of them with multiple PCs, and 30 percent of those will be networked, he said. During this time, the cost of a wireless node — spurred by advances in RF ICs — will have dropped from $250 to less than $100. There will be 100 million wireless transceivers shipped when the price drops below that level, Yan said.

"For some reason, cordless phones outsell wired films," said Modest Oprysko, communication technology manager at IBM (Yorktown Heights, N.Y.). "802.11 solutions are taking off in the corporate world, and there is a huge installed base of Ethernet LANs. By the time 802.11 users want to put them in their home networks, they'll be cheap," he said.

Wireline quality
For wireless to prevail, it must offer the same quality as wireline networks, said panelist Neil Weste, vice president of engineering at Radiata (North Ryde, Australia). He suggested that advanced communications algorithms like spread spectrum technology and CMOS integration would build a "wireless 1394" for ultimedia use in the home.

What then does it take to provide a $15 wireless node, with a 100-dB power amp and a -90-dB receive sensitivity?, asked a provocateur in the audience. "Figure it out," replied Lucent's Yan. "It takes an integrated radio front end. It's probably 50 mm2 in CMOS, 20-to-50 gates," he said. "You tell me: what does that cost?"
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