RFID: TRACKING EVERYTHING

Maturing technology gains traction, but issues still exist

BY DOUG MOHNEY

Radio frequency identification technology, or RFID, has been in commercial use for nearly 30 years and is poised for substantial growth over the next four years.

Initially developed at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratories to track critical items, RFID can be found in everything from anti-theft car keys to medicine packages.

The Department of Defense has been one of the major users of RFID technology during the past 10 years and has told all suppliers to embed RFID tags into cases and pallets, if not into individual items, by January 2005. Wal-Mart also has set a January 2005 target for its top 100 suppliers to place RFID tags on cases and pallets destined for three distribution centers in the Dallas/Fort Worth area with an ultimate goal of a worldwide RFID supply system.

RFID tags can be either passive or active, but both generate a radio signal to transmit data that is received by a reader. Passive RFID tags are effectively dormant until a reader fires a radio signal to power the tag so it can repeat its information, typically within a range of 10 to 15 feet. Batteries power active RFID tags to boost their signal range for greater broadcast distance.

Today, most RFID applications use passive tags for simplicity and cost reasons. Texas Instruments, a major RFID supplier, has manufactured more than 400 million RFID tags during the past 15 years, along with a half million readers.

TI's tags are being used to track livestock, in automobile anti-theft devices and in the Exxon/Mobile Speedpass payment system.

One of the greatest areas of growth for RFID is in supply-chain management.

“Visibility is the first step [into the supply chain],” said Mike Liard, RFID program director of Ventures Development Corp. “The next step is security, where you get anti-counterfeiting benefits, container tracking. Finally, you'll see quality come into play, where [advanced] RFID sensors and sensor networks can monitor the condition of goods within a container. A light monitoring sensor can provide information if a container has been opened up or punctured.”

In the short-term, RFID use in pharmaceutical packaging may surge past DOD and retail applications, according to Liard. “Using RFID as an anti-counterfeiting measure can potentially save lives, and [pharmaceutical companies] can afford it,” he said.

Wal-Mart is bullish on RFID, but “it's a ways away,” before the technology is rolled out to all of its stores, said spokesman Gus Whitcomb. “Right now, we're concentrating on the Dallas/Fort Worth area.”

Currently, the company has three distribution centers and 150 outlets using RFID to track goods from 137 suppliers. The goal is to have at least 12 distribution centers with 600 stores equipped with the technology by October 2005.

“We are already seeing a good return [on investment]… and that will grow,” said Whitcomb. “We are learning more about how things move through the supply chain. Once we have more than 100 suppliers fully participating and more than 100 stores, we can look at additional process changes.”

Ultimately, Wal-Mart will have the technology deployed in all of its 3550 stories and SAM's Clubs in the U.S., as well as its 1500 international outlets.

However, analysts, users and suppliers all agree that RFID has a lot of issues to work out.

“RFID is not one technology and uses many different frequencies, depending on the application, country, how long you want the read range and the signal to be,” said Eric Michielsen, analyst with ABI Research. “Different cases demand different standards.”

Another issue is performance accuracy.

“Wal-Mart wants 100 percent [RFID read accuracy],” Liard said. “Very seldom are you finding anyone getting accuracy of 99.7 percent or above.”

Finally, there are few systems integrators that have experience implementing RFID solutions.

“Everyone and their brother says they have an RFID offering, but who has the experience?” Liard asked. “That is becoming a major factor.”

Rising Fortunes

Dollars spent on hardware and software will jump over the next four years. Most of the growth can be attributed to the supply chain, where adoption is being driven by mandates from the U.S. Department of Defense and Wal-Mart, but the industrial and automotive sectors also will experience a significant uptick. The dramatic increases will drive costs down, which will fuel future adoption.

IP MIGRATION SLOGS FORWARD

Packet-switched networks still are the future, but transition will be slow

BY GLENN BISCHOFF

As wireless broadband technologies continue to evolve at seemingly warp speed, public safety is getting more excited about the prospect of transmitting mission-critical information — such as mug shots and video surveillance footage — to officers in the field to make them more effective and keep them safer.

But while wider pipes make the transmission of giant files possible, it's not the only need, said Mike Netter, inside sales manager for IPMobileNet. A way to access and share that crucial data also is necessary to maximize the opportunity.

For instance, the state of California wants to capture DNA data for every convicted felon in the state, according to Netter, another major addition to the plethora of databases being assembled by government agencies in the post-9/11 world. But unless this information can be shared among disparate agencies, it is next to useless. That's where IP comes in, Netter said.

“The whole idea of IP is to provide interoperability on a data platform,” Netter said. “Internet protocol allows all of the data to be shared in a readable format.”

Advances in consumer wireless applications also will drive public safety's adoption of IP, according to Larry Ward, vice president of sales and marketing for M/A-COM, which pioneered voice over IP in the first-responder sector.

“What is available to us as consumers today is setting an immense expectation,” Ward said. “You can go down to the local store and get a relatively inexpensive phone and use it to send pictures and live video. First responders are consumers, too, and they see this stuff, and they say, ‘Hey, I can use that in a public-safety scenario.’”

Ward added that once public safety understands that voice is just another form of data in the IP world, the sector would discover the cost and logistical advantages of converging voice and data on a packet-switched network.

“Before, in a circuit-switched system, you almost had to have a separate data device, if not an entirely separate data network,” Ward said. “Today, [in a packet-switched system], you have the same terminal device — whether it be mobile or portable — that essentially allows you to plug your laptop directly into a terminal, which also is the device you talk over.”

IP networks also are a less expensive means of backhauling data compared to circuit-switched networks, said Ralf Borgardt, industry marketing manager for EFJohnson. “If you compare the cost of [leasing] T-1 transmission lines to the cost of an IP backbone, which you may own, there is a cost reduction, plus they will get to more advanced features quicker than in the past.”

However, Borgardt cautioned that not all IP backbones today are capable of carrying public-safety voice traffic.

“You have to increase your bandwidth, and you need to stay current with the latest IP software versions for your routers, and then you have to test it out,” Borgardt said. “You have to have a public-safety-grade backbone to make this work — then you can handle the latency. But it can be done modularly; it's mostly upgrading.”

IP-based networks, because of their ring architecture, also introduce a measure of redundancy and reliability not offered by circuit-switched networks. Should fiber be cut or should a node fail, transmissions are simply rerouted to a different pathway. In addition, physical connections don't have to be established between every tower and the central host as they do with circuit-switched systems. That reduces infrastructure costs. And, non-IP-based systems are costly and difficult to move, said Norman Pearl, vice president of engineering and co-owner of Dataradio.

“If you wanted to move a server to another building, you would have to tear up those circuits and reinstall them,” Pearl said. “Disaster recovery and backup becomes a lot more difficult.”

For these reasons, the march to IP adoption by public safety seems inexorable. But it also will be slow because the path is strewn with hurdles and potholes. One challenge is that while IT-oriented communications professionals instinctively understand the benefits of IP — because it is the basis for networked communications — there aren't a lot of them working in public safety today, though that is beginning to change, according to Netter.

“There are definitely IT guys in public-safety agencies of all sizes,” he said. “As LANs have moved into the public-safety arena, you need somebody to maintain the servers and the networks.”

But there aren't as many working for radio dealers, which also could slow the migration, said Dave Keller of Atlanta-based Radio One.

“The real tough thing is to get our sales guys to understand it,” Keller said. “They're going to have to explain to the customer how it's going to work.”

Keller added that many radio shops “don't even want to touch” IP because they perceive it as being too complex, an attitude they're going to have to change.

“There's no doubt it's complicated,” Keller said. “But IP is going to become fairly common, so they're going to have to have a general knowledge of this just to be able to move along in the more basic kind of radio sale into the future.”

However, adoption by a major public-safety or law-enforcement agency at the state or federal level would be a catalyzing event that would accelerate the migration. Jeff Cristler, vice president and general manager of Raytheon JPS Communications, predicted such an event could occur in the next year.

“You're going to see some major announcements in the next 12 months. That will set the stage for the next three to four years for some accelerated acceptance and development of public-safety voice-over-IP and data integration,” Cristler said. “The early adopters will promote the advantages of what they've done, and they will become bellwethers for the industry. Public safety is still a very cautious market, and they will look very heavily to those guys in terms of paving the way.”

IP's Evolution
1995: FedEx deploys Monarch, an IP-based data-only system developed by M/A-COM.
1999: Monarch morphs into Open Sky, a private wireless network.
2001: Motorola intros TETRA-compliant Dimetra IP voice network for the public-safety sector.
2002: • Raytheon JPS intros IP version of ACU-1000 interoperability solution.
• M/A-COM unveils P25IP radio system and Network First interoperability solution.
2003: Motorola intros Mission Critical IP, a P25-compliant voice and data platform.
2004: • M/A-COM unveils VIDA, which converges voice and data traffic over an IP backbone.
• EFJohnson adds VoIP to Netelligent P25-compliant system.

BATTLE OF THE BANDS

Wireless data developments may depend largely on 700 MHz policies

BY DONNY JACKSON

Conventional wisdom dictates that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. During the next year, wireless network designers may find themselves asking a corollary question: Is it worth paying for 10 nodes to operate in the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz range today, or is it better to wait until one node can deliver similar performance at 700 MHz tomorrow?

Complicating the question is the fact that no one knows when tomorrow will come because the valuable 700 MHz spectrum is the focal point of a heated political debate regarding the transition to digital television that will make the airwaves available. Currently used by broadcasters to transmit TV channels 52 through 69, 700 MHz airwaves are coveted because they deliver a much stronger signal than is possible at higher frequencies.

These propagation characteristics can translate into network savings, according to Ron Sege, Tropos Networks president and CEO. For instance, a network in the new 4.9 GHz or 5.8 GHz would require three or four times as many nodes as the same network operating in the already-crowded 2.4 GHz unlicensed band and up to 10 times as many nodes as a 700 MHz network, he said. Fewer nodes in the network mean less money is needed for initial network installation, and future operational costs are reduced, Sege said.

While physics favor network designers using 700 MHz band, current politics do not. Under current law, broadcasters are supposed to vacate the spectrum on Dec. 31, 2006, but they are required to do so only if 85% of all U.S. television sets can receive broadcasters digital signals — something that could take decades to occur, said FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

With this in mind, Powell has voiced support for a plan that would let the FCC count all cable and satellite subscribers as digital TV subscribers. Broadcasters are not in favor of the measure because they fear disenfranchising 45 million viewers that still depend on analog, over-the-air telecasts — and lawmakers have similar concerns because those viewers are potential voters.

“The potential for consumer outrage is enormous, and it's something Congress needs to understand,” said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). “One Congressman told us, ‘If I vote to turn off analog TV in December 2006, I'll be impeached by January 2007.’”

But Congress wants broadcasters to clear the band so it can use money generated by an auction of the commercial spectrum — estimated by some to be worth $30 billion — and to provide public safety with additional spectrum. The latter goal is a key finding of the 9/11 Commission report that is the guiding force for intelligence-reform legislation.

To this end, the Senate passed an intelligence bill that called for the 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band earmarked for public safety to be cleared by Jan. 1, 2008. Even the powerful NAB endorsed the notion, but there is substantial opposition to other language in the bill.

The White House has written a letter opposing the stipulation in the bill that calls for a $1 billion subsidy for converters that would let analog TVs receive “dumbed down” digital signals. Meanwhile, some key members of the House of Representatives apparently are troubled that the Senate legislation doesn't provide a firm date for broadcasters to vacate 700 MHz commercial spectrum — a necessity for lawmakers who want to see the U.S. Treasury coffers filled with proceeds from an auction of the airwaves.

Virtually all government officials support clearing the public-safety spectrum at 700 MHz, but many fear that doing so in isolation could make it even more difficult to make the commercial airwaves available for auction in the future, according to Rudy Baca, Precursor wireless strategist. As a result, the fate of the public-safety spectrum could be linked to lawmakers' ability to establish a viable plan for clearing broadcasters from the commercial segment of the band, he said.

“I think that's the case, and I don't know how they can resolve it in this session,” Baca said, predicting the item will have to be addressed in the new Congress.

SOFTWARE-DEFINED RADIO GETS A BOOST

FCC certifies first product, but prices are still too high for most end users

BY GLENN BISCHOFF

Software-defined radio, which so far has failed to live up to its potential, is showing signs of life. The slowly developing technology received a boost last month when the FCC certified a software radio base station developed by Vanu, the first SDR product to win commission approval (see story page 26).

Vanu Bose, CEO of Vanu, acknowledged that the sector experienced a “good solid 15 years without any military or commercial products” but added that SDR represents a “far-reaching vision,” in large measure because of the lengthy evolutionary curve that governs wireless technology development.

“You know about Moore's Law, which says that [computer processors] double in speed every 18 months,” Bose said. “[In contrast], wireless infrastructure has evolved at the rate of one standard every decade. That's really slow. But what we're seeing is that while the vision is the same, the technology has so advanced in the past decade that SDR is not only feasible now but can be very cost-effective. And any new technology, no matter what features it offers, has to be cost-effective.”

Alan Margulies, chief operating officer of the SDR Forum, an industry coalition dedicated to developing and deploying software radio technologies, predicted that the cost of software radios eventually would decline in a manner similar to that of PCs and cell phones.

“The PC of 1984 was a 3 to 4 MHz machine with a 10 Mb hard drive, and it cost a couple of grand,” he said. “Today, you're talking about factors of a thousand in the performance and price coming down by a factor of four or five.”

While cost is important to cash-strapped public-safety agencies and profit-driven commercial wireless carriers — both primary target markets for the technology — it also is crucial in secondary market segments, according to Margulies.

“There is such tremendous cost sensitivity in cell phones and cars,” he said. “If you're talking about a design change that will add 50 cents to the selling price of a cell phone, you wind up in front of the board of directors of some of these cell phone manufacturers. It's the same with cars. If you add a couple of dollars to the cost of a standard sedan, you're talking about high-level decisions with a lot of meetings and market analysis.”

Margulies added that one way to drive prices down faster would be for the public-safety sector to speak with a unified voice. He said that one major reason SDR is beginning to take hold in the military market is that the Pentagon declared it “would no longer buy radios unless they were software-defined radios.”

Because no central voice exists in the public-safety sector, Margulies said, the SDR Forum is working to at least unify the disparate agencies nationwide. Its Public-Safety Special Interest Group issued a request for information (RFI) last month that seeks specific ideas regarding how SDR technology can meet public-safety requirements. Among the things the forum hopes to learn is how to leverage the investment the military has made in its Joint Tactical Radio Systems (JTRS) program, which was created to help the armed forces migrate from their current radio systems to SDR.

While many of the military's requirements are shared by public safety, there are many others that are superfluous and would result in form factors and price points that would keep SDR beyond public safety's reach.

“The question is, how can we take what public safety really needs — and just what it needs — and roll that technology into something that will fit into the public-safety market,” said Fred Frantz, SDR Forum member and director of law-enforcement communications for L-3 Communications Government Services.

The forum also is taking a hard look at the commercial wireless sector, which is taking a much different approach to SDR, Frantz said.

“The commercial side isn't really following the detailed model of the Software Communications Architecture, which is more expensive and requires more hardware, greater computation and greater memory, all of which drive up costs,” Frantz said.

The SCA was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense via the JTRS program to ensure that SDRs manufactured by different companies would be able to communicate with each other.

“Public safety is sort of a gray area somewhere between the commercial side and the military side and would like to leverage that mass market because they don't have the resources to fund things the way the military does,” Frantz added. “So we're looking for the RFI to provide some feedback as to how we can achieve these conflicting goals of high capability and low cost.”

However, even if costs come down to the point where SDR becomes a feasible option for public-safety agencies and commercial wireless carriers, demand might be spotty, at least for a while, according to Michael Grossi, wireless communications analyst for Adventis. While spectrum efficiency is one of the major selling points for SDR, Grossi said there is considerable debate over whether the so-called spectrum crunch is real or imagined.

“Is the spectrum issue at a boiling point?” he asked. “Certainly, Nextel would argue it is, and they need all of this additional spectrum, but others would say there's still some room to stretch the balloon. What you have then is a periodic boil and not a continuous boil. As a result, SDR still is not top of mind for a lot of the buying community.”

Nevertheless, as more carriers roll out more advanced services — which eat up a lot of spectrum — and market penetration for those services increases, the “highways will continue to get busier and busier,” Grossi said.

“With the increased traffic, it's going to get more difficult to manage spectrum, so therefore, this product makes a lot more sense. It's a more cost-effective way to fill in those boil points than trying to go out and buy more spectrum.”

SDR's Long Journey
1960s: Radios first use microprocessors to control analog tuning circuits.
1970s: Digital signal processors, capable of operating in real time, are developed.
1980s: CORBA (common object request broker architecture) middleware, which allows software to operate independently of hardware, is developed.
1990s: • Joseph Mitola III first coins the term “software radio” and edits seminal IEEE publication on the topic.
• Software Defined Radio Forum is formed.
• BellSouth examines use of SDR in wireless telephone networks.
2000s: • SDR Forum supports a standard reference architecture for SDR-enabled devices.
• U.S. Military implements Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) to help branches migrate from conventional radio systems to SDR.
• JTRS program develops Software Communications Architecture (SCA), which governs the interaction of software and hardware components in a SDR.
• First SDR to support multiple waveforms in a single field programmable gate array introduced.
• FCC certifies first software radio.
• SDR Forum demos JAVA version of SCA.

BROADBAND'S BIGGEST WILD CARD

BPL's promise great, but many market questions need to be answered

BY DONNY JACKSON

It's not a mobile or wireless offering, but broadband over power line, or BPL, technology could have a tremendous impact on the mobile wireless industry as a technical problem, competitor and partner in the future.

To date , most publicity about BPL has focused on interference concerns voiced by amateur radio operators — potential problems they claim will not be limited to their technology. Although FCC rules approved this year for BPL should virtually eliminate the interference risk, amateur radio operators claim the noise from BPL is so great that problems are inevitable.

If interference is not an issue, the ubiquity of the nation's power grid promises to alter the dynamics of the U.S. broadband market. Regulators are applauding the notion of a third wireline competitor to DSL and cable-modem technologies to enhance choice and reduce costs for broadband consumers.

Making the price competition especially compelling is the fact that 99% of the costs of the broadband network already have been paid for in the traditional power grid, according to Precursor CEO Scott Cleland.

In addition, BPL's value is not based solely on generating revenues from broadband customers, according to Jay Birnbaum, vice president and general counsel of BPL vendor Current Technologies. BPL-enabled remote monitoring, maintenance and meter reading can save utilities so much money in truck rolls that investing in the technology “will more than pay for itself,” even if no broadband subscriptions are sold, he said.

Others disagree, claiming that BPL's deployments will be limited to areas where a utility provider will not have to compete directly against DSL and cable-modem providers.

“Without consumer broadband, I don't think it's a value play,” said Vamsi Sistla, director of broadband and residential entertainment research for ABI Research. “I think [the internal utility use of BPL] is just a side serving, not the main course.”

While the prospect of BPL competition should be good news for wireline broadband customers — particularly those in areas where DSL and cable-modem services are not available — BPL also has wireless implications. For instance, wireless home networks have become increasingly more popular, but they may not be as attractive to consumers if every electrical outlet provides a broadband connection.

“Remember, with BPL, you get an instant LAN inside your house,” Birnbaum said.

But utility companies are not equipped to provide the type of customer-support services customers need from broadband providers, so they likely will seek partners to handle those duties, said Brett Kilbourne, director of regulatory affairs and associate general counsel for the United Telecom Council.

“Even if a utility decides to get into the [consumer broadband] market, they'll probably have someone else run the business,” Kilbourne said.

Another partnership attracting interest concerns bundling BPL with satellite services in rural areas, Kilbourne said. In a typical scenario, the satellite company provides the TV package and the download portion of the high-speed Internet package, while the BPL provider supplies the upload portion of the broadband bundle, he said.

BPL's short-term impacts may be significant, but the possible long-term impacts of the broadband technology succeeding are more remarkable. FCC Chairman Michael Powell has touted the potential benefits of a police officer being able to tap into his department's database from a BPL-enabled light pole.

Indeed, BPL also may allow utilities to compete with telecom carriers for backhaul transport from wireless cell towers, Kilbourne said. And the prospect of blanketing a city with Wi-Fi or other wireless connections would be much more practical if wireless routers can access a supporting broadband network at every power structure or electrical outlet.

“That's all future stuff. I don't think it's going to happen right now, and it's definitely not practical in all areas,” Sistla said. “But once [BPL] is deployed, … where is the limit?”

BPL Architecture Types
Powerline Cellular Powerline/wireless
Typical injection point Substation Close to customer area Substation
Repeated on MV lines? Yes Yes Yes
Signal sent across transformer Yes Yes No
Last-mile delivery Powerline Powerline Wi-Fi
Key advantage Full use of power grid Low capital cost in low-density areas High potential reach
Key disadvantage Extensive need for repetition High backhaul cost Wireless interference
Source: United Telecom Council