Another challenge for SiBeam was to make the chip cost effective. Historically, transmitting data at 60 gigahertz has required radios made of a semiconductor called gallium arsenide, which has advantageous electrical properties but is expensive to mass-produce. While it would be cheaper to build the radios out of silicon, the circuit designs used in gallium arsenide radios didn’t translate well to silicon. So SiBeam turned to Bob Brodersen, an electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, who is also the chairman of the company’s board. Brodersen’s team had developed the circuitry to make 60-gigahertz radios out of silicon and has advised the company on the technology. SiBeam is now ramping up mass production of these radios in standard silicon-manufacturing facilities.
SiBeam’s 60-gigahertz chip has progressed faster than many industry watchers expected. “It’s an esoteric part of the spectrum,” says Brian O’Rourke, senior analyst at In-Stat, a technology research firm. “I thought it’d take them longer to get the solution.” One of the features of SiBeam’s technology, O’Rourke notes, is that it works only within a single room. As 60-gigahertz signals pass through walls, they degrade, which means that their data rate would drop enough that picture quality would suffer.
SiBeam isn’t alone in its quest to bring wireless high-definition content to homes, however. Another company, called Pulse-Link, demonstrated its chips at CES as well, and it expects to have products to consumers by the end of this year. Like SiBeam’s chip, Pulse-Link’s increases bandwidth by operating over a range of frequencies, from 3.5 to 4.7 gigahertz–frequencies that have a longer transmission range than 60-gigahertz signals. This means that Pulse-Link’s technology could be used to wirelessly network an entire home, says John Santoff, the company’s founder and chief technology officer. But signals in the 3.5-to-4.7-gigahertz range don’t have the bandwidth of those in the 59-to-66-gigahertz range, so Pulse-Link’s data rates will never match SiBeam’s. However, Santoff says, his company’s chips can handle a little more than a gigabit of data per second. In addition, Pulse-Link has developed software that shrinks the file size of high-definition video when it’s sent through the air and decompresses it when it arrives at the television. The company’s chips work with wired media too, Santoff says. In other words, a chip in a media box could receive a signal from an Internet coaxial cable and transmit it wirelessly to a television.
While the first wireless-HD products are expected to be available later this year, experts who are tracking them don’t expect them to overtake home entertainment centers anytime soon. “My big question is, how bad do consumers want to get rid of cables?” says O’Rourke. When wireless-HD first hits the market, he says, it’s going to be expensive. Initially, he says, manufacturers, such as Panasonic, will put it in high-end products where there is less cost sensitivity. And depending on consumer response, the technology may or may not then find its way into mid- and low-range products within the next few years.
Still, the technologists are optimistic. “Ideally, people want to go wireless,” says Pulse-Link’s Santoff. “Who likes that rat’s nest of wires behind the home entertainment center? We want to plug this stuff in and have it intelligently and wirelessly connect. That’s where the industry is going.”