A better radio might not sound like an exciting new technology. The very word “radio” conjures images of Fibber McGee & Molly gabbing about Herbert Hoover while Pop relaxes from a hard day of selling apples for ten cents. But old-fashioned radio technology has been the base of all our smartphones, Wi-Fi connections, and wireless controllers, and it’s improved less than you’d think. That could change soon. At this week’s Intel Development Conference, Intel revealed what the company is calling the “Moore’s Law Radio,” and it could be the next step in transforming how our electronics work for us.
The radios that run today’s connected devices have always had plenty of digital components, but many crucial components remained analog. Computer processors have been getting better at a mind-boggling clip thanks to Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on a chip (and the computing power of that chip) doubles every two years.
But analog components aren’t subject to Moore’s Law. Analog components can’t be shrunk too far before they start sending stray electric pulses all over the place, they can’t use better processors to reduce power consumption, and they can’t be integrated into a modern production cycle.
For the last 10 years, Intel has been trying to make all of those analog radio functions happen digitally. And this week, the company showed off the culmination of its work: a completely digital Wi-Fi unit that fits onto a single chip. Besides being smaller than any previous Wi-Fi system, it’s also vastly more energy efficient, and ultimately will be much cheaper to build.
Intel is also unveiling a new wireless standard to go with the chip: WiGig, which consolidates a number of proprietary wireless technologies under one umbrella to deliver bandwidth over 5 gigabytes per second. And for good measure, Intel is also developing a vast Cloud Radio Access Network, which will allow Intel-based servers to act as wireless providers, giving faster service than today’s hubs with fewer dropped connections.
What all this means for consumers is a range of wireless applications that have been frustratingly out of reach for too long. Wireless connections that are cheap in terms of manufacturing cost and power consumption will enable a generation of phones and laptops that can be constantly downloading email,, news, and other data without devouring battery power. Many cities have talked about making their entire metro area wireless-enabled; this technology could make that kind of vast wireless network orders of magnitude cheaper and more reliable.
Better phones and laptops are just the start of how this technology can be applied. Ultimately, Intel’s vision is to create “the Internet of Things,” where every physical object has a wireless sensor and sends information to any other object that wants it. Intel CTO Justin Ratner is proposing a world where “If it computes, it connects.” Cheap, fast, low-power wireless technology means that everything from your monitor to your refrigerator to your dishwasher is always online, and always sending information, all without wires and all using less power than today’s netbooks.