Wi-Fi beam-steering tech could KILL OFF fixed home networks

Faultline chats to Ethertronics about Wi-Fi chip agnostic tech

Analysis Veteran US antenna team Ethertronics has brought out what it describes as an active antenna system that can offer beam steering for Wi-Fi.

The system sits in either the client end of Wi-Fi to stimulate the return path or in an Access Point and will work with any Wi-Fi chip architecture and boost performance by between 15 per cent and 45 per cent.

The chips are already on trial inside numerous handsets, tablets and laptops, as well as in set-tops, HDMI video dongles and Wi-Fi access points, among tier 1 US operators, both cellular and video operators. They could be the difference between some of these pay TV providers shifting lock, stock and barrel to wireless-only home gateways.

If this is one of the technologies that makes that decision easy to make, then Ethertronics may find it can dominate gateway antennas, until rivals come up with something similar. It claims that it has never come across a similar antenna beam-steering system among its rivals.

Four different radiation patterns

Faultline talked to the Ethertronics team this week, in the shape of Jeff Shamblin, its chief scientist, who made it clear that any gains that this active antenna system gives a Wi-Fi chip is all at the RF end, and is additional to anything the Access Point chip delivers such beamforming, and MU-MIMO, which are common in 4 x 4 MIMO systems and wave 2 MU-MIMO chips.

The company is private, but has filed for an IPO about six times in the last 13 years and in the end decided not to proceed with them, but you get some scale by seeing it has shipped 1.2 billion antennas and has 250 employees, 80 per cent of whom are in engineering. It is coincidentally headquartered in San Diego, the home of Qualcomm.

It’s not too surprising to note that in 2007 when Qualcomm was looking for a bit of a boost for its MediaFLO broadcast mobile TV service in the US, Ethertronics designed it an antenna that would work inside the phone, rather than rely on one that needed to be pulled out and extended. So their relationship goes way back and it could leverage greatly from a similar relationship now, shipping on the back of Snapdragon handset successes and Qualcomm Atheros gateway design wins.

But it is the awareness that Shamblin had of US home gateways that showed how it plans to go to market. “Around 75 per cent of our sales are in smartphones and cellphones, and another 15 per cent in tablets, laptops and in routers. It’s been a four or five year journey to develop an Active Antenna technology and of the 145 patents that we have filed around 25 per cent of them are in active antenna technology.”

How it works

Ethertronics’ new component is called the EC482 for Active Steering for Wi-Fi and is a combination of some proprietary algorithms and both a CPU and RF part, which generates four different radiation patterns. The CPU uses the algorithms to work out which of those patterns are best to deliver the signal given the distance and the orientation of the device.

“We change the direction that the current flows around the antenna, and this effects any individual antenna. We can do this for any number of antennas, and have been tried in designs that go up to 4 x 4. It is independent of the action of any MIMO elements and of the modulation. This just affects the RF side,” said Shamblin. “Our device can make the switch to a steered beam in about 2 microseconds,” he added.

The system also comes with some predictive algorithms so that once it has worked out which is the best way to deliver a particular signal, it gets better at finding the most effective radiation pattern more immediately. The company already sees future markets for active antennas in hospitals, inventory tracking, traffic control, car-to-car control, metering, cameras and Internet of Things sensors.

“There are two benefits,” said Shamblin. "First, the throughput is up, but also if you use passive antennas, you need someone who can install and test static devices (like set-tops and smart TVs) and find the best orientation for them. So there are more savings at the installation.”

Real-world use

This led to a discussion about US video operators such as Dish, DirecTV and AT&T. “In those high quality video applications our smart antenna system is the difference between the 70Mbps real world Wi-Fi performance in 90 per cent of a household and achieving the high 90Mbps. When an AP wants to speak to three remote TVs at once that means each one can get 30Mbps per device and that is enough for UHD streams.”

He emphasised that these speeds were on the very edge of where Tier 1 US operators were testing devices and typified that performance as “in extreme distances where signals were in a weak condition.” But this is what we see and hear in proposals all the time – companies like AT&T need to know your equipment can cope when your home has thicker walls or three or more floors.

So the route to market for these devices is direct through operators, which in turn, when convinced by the antennas, commission devices which have them in. “We are working with every single tier 1 in the US on this, and we have seen specifications for home based devices at companies like DirecTV and AT&T that have no fixed line connection, such as MoCA.”

Of course that doesn’t mean that these companies will actually commission such devices, but it does mean they are testing them, a move which might make redundant the fight that is going on between MoCA, HomePlug and G.hn to become the “de facto” backhaul for Wi-Fi in the home. If these companies, usually conservative when it comes to take up a new technology, can find a way to reduce the bill of materials in their home gateways, we’re pretty sure they will take it.

To further ease device integration, the Active Steering system for 5GHz is available as a 2D antenna on a flexible circuit board that can be placed anywhere in a box.

Ethertronics came out with a cellular version of this chip back in October when it introduced its Active Steering EC459 for 3G and 4G wireless devices and says that this can operate in any frequency from 100 MHz to 7,000 MHz.

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