FEATURE: Taking WiFi From Technology to Utility

Taking WiFi From Technology to Utility
TI's Kurt Eckles describes what the WiFi industry must do to make WLAN access ubiquitous.

Over the last decade, we have evolved from a PC-centric world to one that is communications and entertainment driven. Whether at home, work or on-the-go, today's consumers are quickly becoming accustomed to fast and easy Internet access to information, anywhere and anytime. The use of personal Internet products like portable music players and digital cameras has allowed consumers to create large amounts of content that they want to share, edit and store. These trends are driving a convergence of multiple technologies across broadband and consumer electronics.

Ultimately, convergence is leading us toward more advanced home networks with unified gateways at the center. Wireless LAN (WLAN) is playing a significant role in this shift. Evolving from its roots as a stand-alone data-centric point product, WLAN eventually will serve as an embedded utility in the digital home.

Today's WLAN technology, or WiFi, is standard fare in laptops, business and home networking gear. It was one of the earliest high-speed wireless technologies, and it has gained ground in popularity across cafes, hotels and other hotspots around the world. For instance, Starbucks is known today for much more than a neighborhood spot to enjoy a hot cup of java. We now can enjoy our coffee while wirelessly accessing the latest news, weather and sports. Service providers like SBC have worked to expand WiFi service for consumers in places we would have never thought possible, including rest areas off the highway and state parks. Internet access has never been easier, and upward WiFi growth is expected to continue.

Analysts estimate that there will be 390 million WLAN integrated circuit shipments by 2008, and a big portion of this growth will be attributed to an increased use at home. The range, throughput and cost-effectiveness that WiFi delivers make it the ideal connectivity technology for the home environment. Several researchers have already reported WLAN as the home networking technology of choice over traditional Ethernet. In-Stat, for example, just recently announced that home networking revenue is expected to top $20 billion by 2009. 

While today's home networks consist of a modem, router and wireless access point that interacts with at least one PC, the possibilities for tomorrow's networks through the addition of WiFi are limitless. The promise of "plug and play" is better described by some as "plug and pray," as interoperability issues and multiple networks have created frustration among consumers. These users welcome the opportunity to create, enjoy and share their digital content with ease and speed. By integrating 802.11 at the system level, WiFi access will become as familiar and easy as the use of Ethernet today -- without the use of wires or cables.

Simultaneous with the rise in home networking is exploding growth of digital consumer electronics. Ultimately WiFi capabilities will be embedded in these devices that we enjoy today, connected through the use of a residential gateway. WiFi will come first to consumer electronics already shipping in volume, including digital still cameras, printers, PDAs, gaming consoles, media adapters and portable media players. Our own consumer-based research resulted in a lot of excitement for future capabilities that WiFi could enable. Imagine taking pictures at a party in your home and sending them via WLAN immediately to the printer for guests to take home, or having the ability to wirelessly download the latest music video from the TV to your portable music player. 

While many consider WiFi an amenity today, eventually it will become a utility and must-have capability in a true, united digital home. Gone will be multiple remote controls for various home entertainment devices and systems. One IP aware remote will control it all, from the television to monitoring who is at the front door. WiFi will extend past home entertainment to include home control applications such as thermostats, sprinkler systems, lighting, security and more.

Technologies such as IEEE 802.11b and 802.11g have brought increased throughput, better range and lower costs, and these benefits will drive the proliferation of wireless connectivity into the home. WiFi availability in fixed applications such as residential gateways, IP set top boxes and digital media adapters, and embedded devices will change how we access broadband information. The soon-to-be-ratified 802.11n specification is poised to bring even faster operation and better performance across high-end applications due to the increased bandwidth of at least 100Mbps, providing new possibilities for connecting products and people to each other and the Internet well into the future. So, while availability of WiFi will occur in phases, it will become a must-have in low to high-end CE devices throughout the home.

To create a truly successful consumer WiFi experience, the technology must be seamless, secure, easy, reliable and affordable.  WiFi enabled consumer electronics must be easy to install and work at the push of a button, without having to read through a lengthy set of technical instructions. A one size fits all WiFi solution will not be effective. Residential gateways require higher coverage and higher output power, whereas size and lower power are key considerations for bringing the technology to consumer electronics. An emphasis on standards for managing interoperability, quality of service (QoS) and issues such as digital rights management (DRM) must be built-in, and transparent to end users. Effective WiFi service also must provide the peace of mind that content and personal information is secure. 

Semiconductor providers that develop complete, end-to-end WiFi technology solutions are best positioned to address the challenges. Advances in digital signal processing technology, software and system-on-a-chip (SoC) integration have reduced chip count and the overall bill of materials for the technology, allowing embedded WiFi functionality to be a very affordable option in a multitude of devices. WiFi is best suited to co-exist with other wired or broadband capabilities such as DSL, Ethernet, VoIP and others -- or consumer electronics platforms like digital audio or video. Integrating WiFi into current platforms allows expertise to be leveraged across multiple technologies to address interoperability challenges for customers and deliver the most optimal connectivity to end users.

This technical know-how must extend across various broadband and consumer electronics technologies, including a systems-level, silicon and software view. Those who embed WiFi capabilities into existing platforms deliver design reuse to their customers and ability to easily upgrade products and service offerings through software. These benefits allow OEMs to get to market faster with differentiated products to consumers to meet their ever-evolving wireless connectivity needs that will extend throughout the future connected and intelligent home.

Kurt Eckles is Manager of Customer Marketing and Business Development for the Residential Gateway and Embedded Systems Group of Texas Instruments. Speakers from Texas Instruments will be among the many presenters at wVoIP 2005, our exclusive executive summit dedicated to the convergence of wireless and VoIP. To learn more about spreading WiFi coverage and how this will impact wVoIP, visit www.wvoip.com.