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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 August 2007, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
Guide to wireless technologies
By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News

Tied computer cables (Science Photo Library)
Wireless technology could release us from the tethers of cable
Where cables and wires once dominated how and where information was sent, recent advances in wireless technology mean that in homes, offices and elsewhere we are rapidly being set free of their tethers.

From using a wire-free headset to make a mobile call, to surfing the internet from wherever takes our fancy, wireless technologies are already having a noticeable impact. And a raft of new advances is set to further de-wire our daily lives.

Here we take a look at some of the short-range technologies that may hasten our farewell to the humble wire.



Woman using Bluetooth-enabled devices
Bluetooth typically has a 30m range

Bluetooth is often equated with the wire-free connection between a headset and mobile phone, but it is in fact used to connect a whole range of devices, including digital cameras, laptops, PCs and games consoles.

The technology consists of chips that use radio signals to transfer information over short distances (typically less than 30m/100ft).

Bluetooth 2.0 is the current version used in most devices and can transfer information that requires low to moderate bandwidths - up to about three megabits per second (Mbps), slightly higher than average broadband speeds.

The technology has relatively low power consumption.


Because its power consumption is so low, Wibree can be used in watches

Wibree, developed by mobile firm Nokia, is able to transfer small amounts of data (in the order of a few kilobits per second) between devices using very little power.

For this reason, it can be used in smaller devices such as watches or gaming sensors.

Bluetooth Special Interest Group (Sig) recently took over Wibree. The result, Bluetooth's Sig says, will be ultra-low power (ULP) Bluetooth that will sit alongside and be compatible with current Bluetooth enabled-devices.

A whole range of applications have been proffered, from sport and fitness sensors to healthcare devices, such as glucose monitors.

The first ULP products are expected to hit the market in 2008.


Zigbee can be used to control lighting systems

Zigbee technology, unlike Bluetooth or Wibree, uses mesh networking.

Mesh networking allows information to be sent through multiple devices, rather than just the two that are "talking" to each other. This has the effect of boosting Zigbee's data transmission range (potentially to hundreds of metres) and strengthens the network.

Zigbee has lower power consumption than Bluetooth, but it also offers a lower bandwidth for data - 256 kilobits per second - which is comparable to early broadband speeds.

For this reason it is used in industrial and home automation systems, such as for lighting and heating systems.


Mobile phone and coffee cup
NFC means mobiles could pay for your cup of coffee

NFC stands for Near Field Communication. It is a very short range technology: NFC enabled devices can transfer a few kilobits when held a few centimetres apart.

Because of its short transmission range, NFC advocates say it is a secure way of transferring vulnerable information.

Mobile phone companies are interested in the technology; it is envisaged that an NFC- enabled mobile could be used to transfer small payments in coffee shops or newsagents, for example.

It is suggested as the technology to could be used in electronic keys, identity documents, tickets and travel documents.


USB cable (Science Photo Library)
Wireless USB products are just coming onto the market

Wireless USB essentially offers the same things as USB devices, but without the cables. It means that items such as printers, cameras and hard drives can be connected to a PC wirelessly.

It uses ultra-wideband (UWB), a common radio platform that allows large amounts of data to be transferred in pulses, wirelessly. Bluetooth has also announced it will use this UWB platform as a connection method, although products are not yet available.

Its data transfer rate is up to 2Gbps and some have suggested it could be used to transfer large data streams such as high definition video. It is not as power-hungry as its data carrying capacity suggests as it sends information in short bursts rather than continuously.

The first wireless USB products are just beginning to come onto the market.


Picture of woman using wi-fi
Wi-fi means you can access the web from where you like

Wi-fi (or wireless fidelity) allows connection to the internet, at broadband speeds, without the need for cables.

It has become extremely popular in homes, offices and cafes, and some city centres, such as Norwich, UK, are now wi-fi zones.

As well as using wi-fi to connect to the net, the technology is also being used to connect devices such as TVs and DVDs to computers.

Current wi-fi (standards 802.11b and 802.11g) can carry data at up to 54Mbps, other forthcoming versions will be even faster - standard 802.11n will be able to carry at 200Mbps, which would allow HD video to be transferred.

However, wi-fi has very high power consumption compared with Bluetooth or Zigbee.


Cordless phone
Lots of homes use cordless phones

Dect (Digitally Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) is typically used for digital cordless phones. Using radio signals, it carries voice data within a 100m range.

It has been a hugely successful technology; cordless phones are used in many homes around the world.

Now, Cordless Advanced Technology (Cat) iq will build upon Dect, by adding Voip and radio services to Dect's capabilities.

As well as using a handset for telephony, consumers will also be able to use them to listen to internet radio or to browse online phone directories, for example.

The first products are expected to be available later this year.

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