ArrayComm Has Its Chips
South Korean manufacturer Kyocera Corp. is the first company to sign on to make the modem chips. The ASIC will be based on a silicon architecture licensed from ARM Ltd., the British company that designs more than 75 percent of the processors found in mobile phones. Kyocera also makes the i-BURST-compatible base stations.
According to Nitin J. Shah, executive vice president and general manager of business development and strategy at ArrayComm, the first i-BURST services will be delivered by South Korean operator Hanaro Telecom Inc. sometime next year.
ArrayComm has taken a very ambitious approach with its technology: Not only has it developed an entirely new wireless Internet protocol, but it uses a different type of spectrum from standard 3G networks. This is why, although the company has no plans to become a network operator, it bought 5 MHz of spectrum in the 1.9GHz band in Australia last year. For ArrayComm, the koala continent will serve as a massive test bed for its services. It did not hurt that the company picked up the spectrum for a song, relatively speaking; ArrayComm paid the Australian government less than US$5 million for the bandwidth.
The reason the bandwidth is so cheap is because ArrayComm is using “unpaired” spectrum that uses time-division duplex (TDD) technology, rather than the standard “paired” spectrum, which is called frequency-division duplex (FDD). FDD spectrum is the bandwidth that is sought after by carriers so that they can offer voice and data cellular services.
TDD allows one channel to be used for both up- and down-stream traffic and is well suited for data packet delivery and Internet connectivity. FDD spectrum uses two separate channels for sending traffic back and forth. This makes it somewhat of a bandwidth hog compared to TDD.
ArrayComm has adapted its technology to make the best use of TDD bandwidth. The system uses “adaptive array antenna” technology to create what Shah calls “a cell within a cell” for individual users. Conventional cellular systems transmit signals in all directions to all the users in the range of a particular cell. In other words, along with the right signals hitting the user, the system is also pumping lots of “noise” or “electro-smog” into the radio frequency environment. The ArrayComm system uses software and an array of antennas to continually map the RF environment, allowing it to create a “personal cell” link with each user. ArrayComm already sells this technology, which it calls “IntelliCell,” for use in conventional cellular networks.
All of this makes the i-BURST system up to forty times more spectrally efficient than current GSM systems, according to Shah. And he reckons the system is a much more appropriate technology for delivering audio and video data over wireless links than a third-generation system like UMTS. “This cannot be done on 3G,” he claims, pointing to Vodafone PLC’s initial test with UMTS as evidence. Vodafone found its system delivered maximum data transfer speeds of 64 kbit/s – in other words, far short of the 2 Mbit/s originally promised. “And this is with very low numbers of users in close proximity to the cell site. What happens when there are lots of users connected to a cell site? Even if I can get 64 kbit/s, how many other users can get that rate?”
3G systems might work as they’re supposed to in big cities, where there will be more cell sites covering smaller areas, he says. However, in the U.S. and other countries there are large areas of the mobile phone network infrastructure where cell sites serve a wide area with few inhabitants. “In rural areas, you’re screwed, basically,” says Shah delicately.
He admits, though, that it’s unlikely carriers are now going to suddenly turn their backs on their huge investments in 3G and go with i-BURST. “We’re not competing with 3G,” he says. Indeed, he sees 3G systems as extremely appropriate for delivering, “a little bit of data, very quickly.”
He says the company is targeting wire-line operators that haven’t invested in 3G but see the need to offer their customers some kind of wireless data service, and fixed broadband Internet access providers that are looking at wireless. “They want to take their broadband customers wireless, not their wireless customers broadband,” Shah contends, noting that ArrayComm has been talking to both these types of service providers (but he wouldn’t name any names).
Before any of this can happen in the U.S. and Europe, however, ArrayComm has to get past the regulators. The company has been especially active in lobbying Washington to open up the TDD spectrum for auction. “I’m extremely optimistic that we’ll get TDD spectrum for use in the U.S,” says a grinning Shah. When? “Oh, well, before the end of the year.”
So basically, ArrayComm has to live on its funding and IntelliCell revenues until Hanaro Telecom and possibly an Australian carrier, as yet unnamed, start to offer i-BURST services next year. “We certainly have enough funding to take us through the next year and a half, two years,” says an unflappable Shah.
— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung