Issue #2003 - 06
Here's Broadband in Your Pocket
Australian researchers unveiled a chip that lets cell-phone users receive high-quality face-to-face video and other streaming media at rates faster than a home broadband connection.
Developed at Bell Labs in Australia, the chip works on a next-generation cell-phone network like the one powering the Sprint PCS Vision service and can run programs at up to 24 megabits per second -- almost 20 times faster than a traditional T1 line.
The "turbo decoder chip," which is available for a licensing fee, lets users of any wireless device on a 3G network conduct video teleconferences, tap into corporate data behind a company firewall, and send and receive multimedia applications like MP3 tunes, video clips and PowerPoint presentations.
"We're talking about data rates competitive with the most advanced broadband wired modems," said Chris Nicol, lead researcher for the team that developed the chip.
Industry analysts said the chip could compete head-to-head with Wi-Fi wireless Internet networks, which have been hugely popular in coffee shops, homes, libraries and offices, but can deliver data to a PC at up to only 11 megabits per second.
"That's pretty impressive performance," said Stan Bruederle, an analyst for market research firm Gartner Dataquest.
The introduction of such a chip may breathe life into 3G networks. Many analysts and consumers have favored Wi-Fi over 3G because it's more readily available, cheaper and easier to use.
The big question, however, is whether Bell Labs' turbo chip can compete with Wi-Fi on price, Bruederle said.
Most Wi-Fi customers don't pay more than $40 a month for service. But Bruederle pointed out that using a cell phone as a modem for Internet access or running Internet applications on a wireless device powered by a cell-phone network could prove to be expensive -- many carriers charge by the minute.
Also, Wi-Fi technology operates on a slice of airwaves that is largely unregulated by the government and can be used without a charge. Cell-phone carriers, on the other hand, paid millions, if not billions, of dollars for their wireless spectrum. As a result, they're looking for ways to recoup those costs -- most likely at the expense of their customers, Bruederle said.
"It's a question of economics," he said. Other analysts questioned whether Bell Labs' development may have come a little too late. Nicol said the chip has been in development for three years, but that Bell Labs scientists grappled with technical issues such as how to use the spectrum most efficiently so that the wireless device could deliver the content at high speeds without draining the battery. "Turbo decoding is one of the most computationally intensive functions performed on a mobile 3G network," Nicol said.
Unfortunately for Bell Labs, the market doesn't seem to have waited for those engineers to solve all the equations. Most cell-phone carriers have already decided to operate their 3G networks as they are or offer Wi-Fi service, said Joe Laszlo, an analyst with Jupiter Research.
"Carriers are already spending billions of dollars on technology," Laszlo said. "It's hard to get them to shift those billion-dollar bets onto another technology."
MobileInfo Comments and Advisory: This
is good technology innovation that may have a bright future.
However, for analysts to stretch the potential to start competing
with WiFi and so on shows immature thinking and lack of
understanding how technology moves from the lab to the product. It
is not just a chip that increases the capacity. The scientists may
have solved a small part of the total problem.
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