Canadian researchers uncover new ‘wireless’ possibilities

A group of Canadian researchers are exploring new wireless networking technologies that push the boundaries of the familiar, but have some very practical applications.

One of these is Ultra Wide Band (UWB), a technology that enables wireless transmission of large data files at very high speeds – up to 1 gigabit per second – over a short distance of up to 10 feet.

This technology is very different from radio, where channels (radio stations) are separated by different frequency bands that don’t overlap, says Robert Schober, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC), who is spearheading this initiative.

By contrast, UWB uses large bandwidth that allows overlap with radio stations, mobile phones and other devices that may be assigned the same frequency band, according to Schober, who is also Canada research chair for UWB.

He says transmission is done at low power spectral densities below the signal “noise” limit that might interfere with other entities sharing the band, thus increasing the bandwidth available for data transmission dramatically.

But there is a trade-off: as transmission is at a higher frequency range, only small distances are covered.

“UWB is basically a cable replacement tool,” says Schober. “Industry groups are standardizing a new generation of wireless personal area networks.” There are a myriad applications for the technology, he says – connecting televisions to VCRs, computers to printers, downloading files wirelessly from one computer or device to another, and other areas where faster transmission is needed.

Schober described an interesting new application relating to sensor networks. A power plant, he said, could potentially install small sensors in pipes to detect cracks, and transmit the information to a central processing station.

“You can do very accurate rangings to determine the location, and this is important for sensor networks where you have to know exactly where the problem is,” says Schober.

Promising research is also being done in network mobility management – technology that enables seamless transition between different mobile networks without users even being aware of the switch.

Vincent Wong, assistant professor at UBC, is exploring the technical issues in developing multiple interfaces for single devices that allow interoperability among different network types.

Wong’s focus is on exploring connections between cellular phone networks and wireless LANs, WiFi and multi-hub networks. Mobile workers connected to a cellular phone network, for example, would be able to switch their connections to their company’s wireless LAN if they move into an area covered by it in the course of a session.

“There is no device now that offers that kind of service,” says Wong.

Blackberries that can be used for both mobile phone calls and e-mailing may appear to be in the dual capability category, but they are actually connected to one network that can provide both voice and data capabilities, explains Wong.

“Right now, cellphones have limited capabilities to access Internet. We envision mobile devices in the future which will have more features than the current Blackberry,” he says.

Wong is investigating issues in this area. How to trigger switching is a major one – simple detection of an alternate network is not sufficient, and would need to be defined by a user profile.

Other criteria to consider are the bandwidth needed by another type of network, the cost to access it, and the battery power needed to sustain a session, he says.

UWB’s wireless possibilities and transfers between different networks assume a decentralized network infrastructure, but many organizations have moved in the opposite direction towards centralization, particularly in the public sector.

Over the past few years Jey Jeyarajan, senior manager of technical services at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), has been working to consolidate local IT services for about 600 schools into one central processing location. The TDSB uses a wireline fibre optic network provided by Bell Canada to deliver services. All IT processing – printing, file sharing, and Internet access – is centralized.

“There are huge economies of scale by doing so,” says Jeyarajan. “Wireline is more efficient in our instance because of the way we’ve structured our applications and services. We’ve removed the complexities from the schools.”

New wireless technologies have a way to go before they appeal to organizations that have made significant investments in centralized network infrastructure.

“These wireless technologies are important because they set trends. Once the hype cycle is over, there may be other uses that we can leverage to drive down costs or enhance learning or offer creative programs that we currently can’t offer,” says Jeyarajan.

Related links:

Taking wireless networking to the MAX

Bluetooth looks to UWB for bandwidth

Faster wireless rates coming soon

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