Embedded Wireless WAN

Embedded wireless WAN won't revolutionize the industry, but it is one important step toward the greater adoption of wireless data.

September 27, 2005

4 Min Read
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One important enabler for the WLAN industry has been the embedded WLAN capability for notebook computers, which is now included in most of the units sold. Intel's Centrino effort has both provided marketing dollars and made it easy for notebook computer vendors to include WLAN capability. Can the same success be replicated with wireless wide-area networks, whether they are based on EDGE, EV-DO, UMTS/HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) or, eventually, WiMAX? Will such developments also accelerate the adoption of wireless data? And what are the issues involved in making embedded wireless WAN a reality? These questions were addressed in a September 13, 2005, symposium by the Portable Computer and Communications Association, an organization that works on wireless data interoperability issues and of which I act as chair.

There are a number of reasons for wanting wireless WAN embedded. One is ease of use, since the card comes preconfigured for use and doesn't require an installation procedure. Another is improved performance. If the notebook computer is properly designed for the wireless WAN card, it will include internal antennas high in the lid of the notebook computer. It may even include multiple antennas to accommodate forthcoming performance-increasing techniques such as mobile receive diversity and MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output). The notebook computer will also provide the proper thermal, electrical and electromagnetic environments to ensure optimum operation of the radio circuits.

Many companies are working to make embedded wireless WAN a reality, among them chip vendors, modem vendors, notebook manufacturers and cellular operators. So far, only a few solutions are available, most notably the Sony Vaio with EDGE capability using Cingular's network. However, a number of recent announcements point to developing momentum. Dell recently announced it would offer an EV-DO PC Card as well as provide service activation for Verizon Wireless. For the moment, this is a separate PC Card, but this will likely migrate to an embedded format next year. And last week, Dell announced that beginning in the first quarter of next year it will offer notebook computers with embedded HSDPA capability using Cingular's network. HP, Lenovo (IBM ThinkPad) and Panasonic have also indicated plans for supporting embedded wireless WANs. For embedded installations, the emerging form factor is PCI Express Mini Card. Vendors will be shipping modems in this form factor in 2006.

The challenge is that the market is somewhat fragmented with multiple wireless technologies. For embedded wireless WAN to work the most effectively, notebook computers must be designed essentially from the ground up to support the addition of wireless modules, including internal antennas, the appropriate electronic designs and board layouts to minimize interference from the computer, and appropriate heat dissipation. Complicating things further is that different operators have different requirements from their vendors. This means the EV-DO modem for Verizon is not necessarily identical to the EV-DO modem for Sprint. However, issues like this are largely manageable and solutions are facilitated by the consolidation of wireless operators.

The industry is also addressing how to manage wireless transmitters in devices for usage in environments such as airplanes and other areas where transmitters must be disabled. For instance, the Consumer Electronics Association has published a document entitled "Recommended Practice--Status Indicator for and Control of Transmitters in Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs)."With sales of wireless WAN cards much lower than wireless LAN cards, it is doubtful that wireless WAN capability will become a standard item on notebook computers for some time. Incremental hardware costs for wireless WAN are currently much higher than for wireless LAN, where costs are in the $10 range for IEEE 802.11g modules. Wireless WAN costs today are at least an order of magnitude higher. Over time, this will change. Intel is pushing to make mobile WiMAX a standard feature on future notebook computers, and competing EV-DO and HSDPA forces will attempt to do the same. But we are at least a couple of years from this scenario.

Nevertheless, the capability doesn't have to be standard for the embedded capability to provide significant benefits. Making wireless WAN a checkbox item when companies order notebook computers increases awareness of the wireless data services, simplifies purchasing and provides better performing solutions. Bottom line: Embedded wireless WAN won't revolutionize the industry, but it is one important step toward the greater adoption of wireless data.

For more information:

Portable Computer and Communications Association

Consumer Electronics Association's "Recommended Practice--Status Indicator for and Control of Transmitters in Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs)"0

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