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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 January 2008, 10:29 GMT
The personal and global wireless network
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website, in Las Vegas

Sony NF
Sony is showing off a Near Field technology called Transfer Jet
From bits of data transmitted across mere millimetres to gigabytes sent through the air over many kilometres, we live in an increasingly wireless world.

While the globe may not yet be covered in a seamless wireless network, the building blocks are being put into place.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, a range of wireless technologies are on display, embedded in devices and products designed to connect our digital lives.

The wireless world is evolving into three types of networks - a Personal Area Network (Pan), which covers your immediate surroundings, a Local Area Network (Lan) for the home or hotspot and a Wide Area Network (Wan), which can cover a large geographic area.

One of the newest technologies on show at CES in the field of personal networks is Transfer Jet from Sony, a system to transfer bursts of data between devices in ultra close proximity.

The system can transfer data at speeds of up to 480 Megabits per second (Mbps), which makes it faster than Bluetooth and equivalent to Wireless USB, a technology which is beginning to get wide support in the electronics industry.

Wimax will be the wi-fi for the 21st century. The same great experience you have at home, we would like to give you anywhere in the world, without having to stay close to the hotspot
Mooly Eden, Intel

It is also much faster than Near Field Communications, a similar technology which is being championed by Nokia.

At CES, Sony was showing a digital camera sending photos to a PC simply by sitting it on top of the computer.

To avoid interference with the growing number of other wireless technologies in use in homes, Sony's Transfer Jet uses electric induction to transmit data, rather than radiation field antennas, which are typically used in wireless devices.

Electric induction is the technology which charges cordless electric toothbrushes.

Stiff competition

Sony is looking for partners to develop the technology and hopes to release products using Transfer Jet next year.

UWB hub
Some of the first Wireless USB solutions are on display
It faces stiff competition from an Ultra Wideband technology called Wireless USB, which is looking to capitalise on the global success of USB and already has a large number of supporters, including Intel and Microsoft.

Jeff Ravencraft, president of the Wireless USB association, said: "As consumers get more and more comfortable with the wireless world, they want to be untethered with all of their devices.

The first wireless USB devices hit the market last year - connecting current wired USB devices, using a dongle plugged into a computer, to a wireless USB hub.

"Dell and Lenovo have announced support for the technology in their laptops - and that will help ramp up the technology," said Mr Ravencraft.

More integrated

The technology can transmit data over distances between three and 10 metres, and in the coming months a range of devices - from printers to cameras - will have Wireless USB fitted as standard.

Long term the technology is looking to become more integrated with digital living room technologies and to increase data speeds to up to 960 Mbps.

Bluetooth is becoming a ubiquitous technology
Mike Foley, Bluetooth SIG

It has been called a Bluetooth killer but Mr Ravencraft said that while the two technologies did have some overlap they could complement each other.

He said: "Bluetooth is mainly used for low data rate usage - and that will remain for some time. The types of devices using Bluetooth do not need the speeds offered by Wireless USB."

But he said Wireless USB could eat into wi-fi's marketshare for connected products in the home.

"Consumers don't know how to set up a wi-fi network; it's just not happening. People like the simplicity of wireless USB."

Unsurprisingly, Mike Foley, chairman of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) which oversees development of the technology, believes it has a strong future.

Different applications

"This is the 10th anniversary of Bluetooth and last year 800 million devices shipped with Bluetooth. It's becoming a ubiquitous technology."

Mr Foley said Bluetooth had been implemented into lots of different applications, devices and scenarios.

Intel stand at CES
Intel is pushing mobility and Wimax
"In the US doctors are using a Bluetooth stethoscope to listen to patient's hearts - sending data to a computer to be recorded and audio to the doctor's headphones," he said.

The Bluetooth SIG is working on a very low power version of Bluetooth that can be used in sensor equipment and on increasing the speed, for implementation into cameras and media devices.

Bluetooth hopes to push speeds to 100Mbps at a 10-metre range, which could make it a rival to Wireless USB.

Mating technologies

But instead of trying to compete, Bluetooth is hoping the two technologies can work together.

"We are looking at utilising Ultra WideBand (Wireless USB) to transmit large amounts of data but using Bluetooth to scan devices and set up the security relationship between them."

The Bluetooth SIG is also looking at using wi-fi to transmit data once devices have paired.

The most personal of Pan technologies is NFC - which is rapidly becoming a simple way to connect devices and make cashless payments.

The contactless technology allows a small amount of data to be transmitted very quickly over a tiny distance.

It is already being used in payment systems, such as public transport in Vienna and London, and in technologies like digital picture frames, in which a camera can send a photo just by touching the frame.

But the technology is also being used to make using other wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth and Wireless USB, easier to use.

'Instantly pair'

Gerhard Romen, from Nokia and the vice-chair of the NFC Forum, explained: "If I want to stream music from my phone using Bluetooth to my speakers I currently have to pair the devices by searching for them via Bluetooth on my mobile device.

"But with NFC, I can simply touch my phone to the speakers and they instantly pair, and I can then start playing music over Bluetooth."

The same sort of pairing system is also being touted for use with Wireless USB devices to make it easier to connect devices, such as printers to computers.

Wi-fi, one of the most ubiquitous wireless technologies, is still growing in use at an impressive speed.

There are now more than 350 million devices in the world with the technology.

But does the technology risk being squeezed out by emerging technologies, like Wireless USB, and one of the next-generation wireless networks, Wimax?

User base

Wi-Fi Alliance senior director Karen Hanley said it had the flexibility to compete.

She said: "Wi-fi can blanket your whole home, connect devices in the home or it can be used to make phone calls in hotspots.

"No other technology has the benefits, plus the user base and awareness that wi-fi has."

CES boasts hundreds of Bluetooth products
By 2011, the Wi-fi Alliance predicts more than 1.2 billion devices will ship with wi-fi on board in a single year. Despite delays in finalising standards for a faster version of wi-fi, called 802.11n, devices with the technology have hit the market.

On a more global scale, Wimax is receiving a big push from Intel at CES. It is a wireless protocol that can transmit data at high speeds over a distance of kilometres.

'Blanketed globe'

The company predicts that more than 150 million people will be connected over Wimax around the world by the end of 2008.

"We need a ubiquitous, wireless broadband infrastructure. Eventually we will blanket the globe in wireless broadband connectivity," said Paul Otellini, Intel chief executive.

He said Intel had embraced Wimax because it was a global technology and offered the upload and download speeds to create a more dynamic online experience.

Intel is building a Wimax radio module into its laptops this year, hoping to give the technology the same boost wi-fi received when it came "as standard" on computers.

Mooly Eden, Intel's global head of mobility, told BBC News: "Wimax will be the wi-fi for the 21st century. The same great experience you have at home, we would like to give you anywhere in the world, without having to stay close to the hotspot."

He said the ultimate goal for all wireless technologies was to live in harmony - becoming invisible to the user because the devices switched seamlessly between them.

"You shouldn't care about Wimax, wi-fi, cellular, or something like Bluetooth.

"The devices need to be smart enough to figure out automatically how to connect you and to roam seamlessly from one system to another."

Once that happens, it will finally be possible to say that the globe is enveloped in in a wireless network - from devices a hair's breadth apart to devices working in the most remote parts of the world.

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