07:17 PM

From Bluetooth To 4G: What All Those Wireless Terms Really Mean

Companies and consumers considering wireless technology confront a daunting array of terminology and acronyms, not to mention numerous technology choices. We cut through the clutter to give you the straight scoop on what each type of technology can (and can't) do for you.

Wireless technology is evolving in ways we once only dreamed about, giving us fast connectivity from almost anywhere. But it is also devolving into a stew of acronyms and arcane trade names that sometimes confuse even those in the know.

Wireless Technology Guide

• Short-Range Wireless

    - Bluetooth

    - UWB

    - NFC And ZigBee

• Medium-Range Wireless

    - Wi-Fi

    - Wireless Mesh

• Wide-Area Wireless Networks

    - 3G Service

    - 4G And Wireless Broadband

"If this alphabet soup of names is confusing for industry people like me, I can't imagine what it's like for consumers," said Derek Kerton, principal of The Kerton Group, a wireless and mobile telecommunications consulting firm.

Kerton said it's helpful for users to understand the trade names and acronyms so they know what they're buying. But, he stressed, it's much more important -- and difficult -- to understand the risks, rewards and limitations of the various wireless technologies.

Since you won't always get straight answers to those questions from the vendors, here's a rundown of the most widely discussed wireless technologies and how they may -- or may not -- benefit you.

Short-Range Wireless

Short-range wireless simplifies the task of connecting one device to another, eliminating the tangle of cords and enabling you to roam away from those devices while you use them. While distances may vary based on different chipsets and impediments such as walls, these short-range wireless technologies typically have an optimal maximum range of 30 meters or less.

Named after a 10th-century Danish king who united warring factions in Scandanavia, Bluetooth is a classic case of an overnight success that took years to occur. The first products with built-in Bluetooth came to market with great fanfare in 2000. From the start, lots of devices like cell phones were Bluetooth-equipped.

Bluetooth devices multiplied rapidly, but most observers agree that Bluetooth has started being widely used only in the last year or so. Shipments of Bluetooth-enabled devices doubled in 2005, and an estimated half-billion such devices will be shipped this year. Among the more common applications for Bluetooth are wireless headsets for cell phones and portable music players.

The advantages of Bluetooth include low power consumption and the fact that, unlike the older IrDA technology used in PDAs and other devices before it, it uses omnidirectional radio waves. That means you don't have to point one Bluetooth device at another for a connection to occur, and it can be transmitted through non-metal barriers like walls. One big disadvantage is its speed -- the most recent version of the Bluetooth spec supports speeds of only about 2.1 Mbps. That compares poorly to old-fashioned Ethernet networks, which operate at about 100 Mbps.

Another problem can be that different Bluetooth applications require different so-called profiles, or set of behaviors that define how they communicate, and the devices at both ends of the connection must support the same profile. Usually this isn't a problem, but it can be if you're mixing and matching Bluetooth equipment. Practically speaking, if you are buying a Bluetooth-enabled phone, for example, make sure its profile matches the one used by your Bluetooth headset.

Ultra-Wideband (UWB)
The future of Bluetooth is tightly connected to that of ultra-wideband (UWB). Once thought to be competing technologies, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which represents Bluetooth vendors, says it will harmonize the technologies so that they work together.

UWB is a high-bandwidth technology with speeds well in excess of 100 Mbps, which is roughly 50 times faster than Bluetooth. That makes UWB a good choice for applications such as streaming multimedia from, say, a PC to a television. Some vendors are about to start shipping UWB gadgets -- the first should be those that distribute high-definition television (HDTV) signals.

The problem that UWB has faced is that there are two competing UWB standards, which were developed by two separate organizations -- the WiMedia Alliance, which has the backing of such big-name vendors as Intel, and the UWB Forum, which is primarily backed by Motorola. The IEEE standard-setting body has given up trying to settle on a single standard. Instead, both are in the process of being released into the marketplace, although Motorola and Freescale have decided to focus on one permutation of their standard called Cable Free USB.

Also, the UWB standard developed by the WiMedia Alliance will be the basis of the Bluetooth SIG's efforts to harmonize the two technologies.

Kerton believes the Bluetooth SIG's decision settles the matter. "The UWB standards battle is over," he said. "The support from the Bluetooth Special Interest Group puts too much momentum behind the WiMedia Alliance, so that will be the standard that eventually succeeds."

Bluetooth and UWB won't be working together for at least a couple of years. In the meantime, UWB products from both camps will be available, which some fear will lead to a VHS/Betamax situation in which there is a risk of buying equipment that will soon be obsolete.

Other Short-Range Technologies
Two other short-range technologies you may hear about are near-field communications (NFC) and ZigBee. There's very little overlap between those technologies and Bluetooth and UWB.

NFC has the shortest range of all -- it is designed to be embedded in mobile devices such as cell phones and even in credit cards. Using NFC, you can swipe your device within a few centimeters of point-of-sale terminals to pay for things. This technology is starting to spread in Korea and Japan and is being tested in the United States. Since it provides a fast, secure way of making payments, many industry analysts expect it to catch on quickly.

ZigBee is aimed at applications like wireless sensors that can be used for security and for in-building applications such as controlling heating and cooling systems. It, too, is widely expected to be a successful technology, although it will be a quiet success since it is built into machinery and other items that work in the background.

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