GT Spectrum

Reports from the IT horizon

by / December 4, 2003
Personal Magnetism
WILMINGTON, Mass. -- The wireless headset is getting a makeover. Current models use radio frequency technology to link headsets to mobile devices, but a new headset is turning to magnetic fields.

Aura Communications and foneGEAR debuted their universal wireless headset based on magnetic communications technology at DEMOmobile 2003. Incorporating Aura Communications' LibertyLink technology, foneGEAR's Cord Free headset uses an enhanced form of near-field magnetic communication and is compatible with existing mobile and cordless phones, and PCs.

"The magnetic induction technology is among the most significant new innovations we've seen in this area," said Chris Shipley, executive producer of the DEMOmobile event. "The huge savings in power and cost, as well as the inherent privacy of the technology, should prove very attractive to consumers."

Although the concepts behind magnetic induction communication have been around for decades, the companies say this is the first practical development of the technology.

Radio frequency (RF) wireless communication systems may be optimal for communicating over long distances, but their very nature creates security issues because of widespread broadcasting of information in a particular frequency band, which often results in interference and crowding among devices as well.

One example of this is the 2.4 GHz frequency band, the companies said, where simultaneous operation of a portable phone using a Wi-Fi network and a Bluetooth headset is frequently impossible without severe degradation of quality of service.

In contrast, magnetic communications operate in the low-frequency industrial, scientific and medical band at 13.5 MHz, and create a three-dimensional "bubble" around each user. Even better, magnetic communications -- by the laws of physics -- are inherently private and secure.

The magnetic communications headset uses a single AA alkaline battery to achieve up to 25 hours of talk time and three months of standby power. The headset doesn't even have a standby or "on-off" button, so worrying about remembering to turn it off is a thing of the past.

The headset is docked in a base that attaches to your phone through a universal 2.5 mm headset jack. The companies said they expect the headsets to hit the shelves of major nationwide electronics chains by the fourth quarter of this year, and will be available for less than $80. -- Aura Communications

Broadband Subscribers Grow in 2002
GENEVA -- The number of worldwide broadband subscribers grew 72 percent in 2002 to approximately 63 million, according to a report issued in mid-September by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

South Korea leads the way in broadband penetration, with approximately 21 broadband subscribers for every 100 inhabitants. Hong Kong ranks second with nearly 15 broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants, and Canada ranks third with just over 11 broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Home users drive the vast majority of broadband demand in all markets.

"Broadband is arriving at a time when the revolutionary potential of the Internet has still to be fully tapped," said Dr. Tim Kelly, head of the Strategy and Policy Unit at ITU. "However, while broadband is accelerating integration of the Internet into our daily lives, it is not a major industry driver in the same way that mobile cellular and the Internet were in the 1990s. It's an incremental improvement, offering Internet access that is faster, more convenient and cheaper than ever before."

Early evidence suggests broadband access fuels consumer spending, according to the report. Around the world, there is a positive relationship between broadband penetration and monthly spending on communications services. South Korea enjoys the second highest level of monthly telecommunications spending after Switzerland. Other economies with high rates of broadband penetration, such as Canada and Iceland, also have above average levels of consumer telecommunications spending.

For businesses, the new generation of broadband services competes effectively with leased lines, which traditionally have served the corporate sector. In some markets, broadband can be as much as 111 times cheaper, per megabyte per second, than private network options. The cost savings alone suggest a major incentive for business and government users to shift to broadband.

Today, approximately one in 10 Internet subscribers worldwide -- or slightly more than 5 percent of the total installed base of fixed lines worldwide -- has a dedicated broadband connection. In South Korea, which is approximately three years ahead of the global average in converting Internet users to broadband, broadband subscribers represent 94 percent of total Internet subscribers.

By the end of 2002, broadband services were commercially available in approximately 82 of 200 economies worldwide. Many of these economies enjoyed impressive growth in broadband subscribers during the past four years. In some markets, broadband is expected to become one of the fastest growing consumer communications services. For example, broadband penetration in the United States is likely to reach the 25 percent mark more quickly than either PCs or mobile telephones did in the past. -- The International Telecommunication Union

Anticipating Earthquakes
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Despite all the achievements of seismology, scientists still can't warn of an impending earthquake in the way weather forecasters warn of approaching storms.

That may be changing. Satellite technologies being developed at NASA and elsewhere may soon spot signs of a quake days or weeks before it strikes, giving the public and emergency planners time to prepare.

"One method is interferometric-synthetic aperture radar (InSAR)," said Jacob Yates, a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "Basically InSAR is when two radar images of a given tectonic area are combined in a process called data fusion, and any changes in ground motion at the surface may be detected."

This technique can reveal ground motions as minute as 1 mm per year. That kind of sensitivity, combined with the landscape-wide view satellites offer, lets scientists see tiny motions and contortions of land around a fault line in more detail than ever before. By watching these motions, they can figure out where points of high strain are building up.

A group of NASA and university scientists recently studied the feasibility of forecasting earthquakes from space. Their report, released in April, outlines a 20-year plan to deploy a network of satellites -- the Global Earthquake Satellite System (GESS) -- using InSAR to monitor fault zones around the world.

With some practice, scientists should be able to use InSAR data to infer when stresses in the Earth's crust have reached a dangerous level and issue monthly "hazard assessments" for faults.

InSAR satellites improve the data available to orthodox seismology, but other emerging techniques break with tradition. One idea is to look for surges in infrared radiation.

"In the 1980s and '90s, Russian and Chinese scientists noticed some strange thermal anomalies associated with earthquakes in Asia -- for example, the 1998 Zhangbei earthquake near the Great Wall of China," said Friedemann Freund, a scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center. "This earthquake occurred when ground temperatures in the region were around minus 20 degrees Celsius. Just before the quake, thermal sensors detected temperature variations as large as 6 to 9 degrees, according to Chinese documents."

Satellites equipped with infrared cameras could detect hot spots from space. When Freund and colleague Dimitar Ouzounov, of the Goddard Space Flight Center, examined infrared data collected by NASA's Terra satellite, they discovered a warming of the ground in western India just before a powerful quake struck Gujarat in 2001.

In addition, scientists doing research with magnetometers just before major earthquakes have serendipitously recorded tiny, slow fluctuations in Earth's magnetic field. One example happened during the Loma Prieta earthquake that devastated San Francisco in 1989. Almost two weeks before the quake, readings of low-frequency magnetic signals (0.01 Hz -0.02 Hz) jumped to 20 times above normal levels and spiked even higher the day of the quake.

A company called QuakeFinder hopes a satellite in low-Earth orbit can detect these faint magnetic signals. Ground-based sensors can detect these fluctuations as well, but polar-orbiting satellites have the advantage of covering most of the Earth's surface each day.

In June, QuakeFinder launched QuakeSat, a small satellite that will hunt for magnetic signals generated by tectonic activity. The first six months of the mission will be spent calibrating the satellite and gathering baseline data. After that, ground controllers will look for quakes.

Both the infrared and magnetic methods of quake detection are controversial. For now, InSAR seems a safer bet for earthquake forecasting. All three, however, offer a tantalizing possibility: Someday the local weather report will forecast not only the storms above us, but also the ones brewing beneath our feet. -- NASA

A Sweet Ride
TOKYO -- Toyota Motors plans to build a pilot plant for producing bio-plastics (polylactic acid) made from renewable resources, such as sugarcane. The plant, which will be located at an existing production facility in Japan, will produce 1,000 tons of bio-plastics a year.

Toyota already uses "Eco Plastic" -- bio-plastics with improved durability, heat resistance and other qualities -- in the company's Raum passenger vehicle, which debuted in May.

Having determined the viability of its bio-plastic manufacturing technology, Toyota will use the pilot plant to investigate the feasibility of reaching cost and quality targets during mass production. Toyota said the facility will host the entire process, from fermenting and purifying lactic acid to polymerizing polylactic acid.

Since the base material of bio-plastics is a plant like sugarcane -- which absorbs carbon dioxide from the air as it grows -- bio-plastics help prevent global warming, compared to conventional petroleum-based plastics. Bio-plastics can be given biodegradable properties that allow them to be broken down into water and carbon dioxide by micro-organisms in the ground, reducing waste disposal problems.

To enlarge the bio-plastics market and secure a footing for the construction of a commercial plant in the near future, Toyota said it intends to further improve the performance of bio-plastics for automobile use -- mainly interior parts -- and also plans to adapt them to the wide range of other plastic products. -- Toyota Motors

Software Radio Brings Cellular Capacity to Rural Communities
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Researchers successfully tested a system that can replace a cellular tower's room of communications hardware with a single desktop style computer, making the technology affordable for small, rural communities.

The software can also run emergency communications -- such as police, fire and ambulance channels -- on the same device as the civilian system, eliminating need for a separate network of emergency communications towers.

"Rural customers are the first application of the technology, but large carriers are watching to see what happens," said John Chapin, chief technology officer of Vanu Inc., the Cambridge, Mass., company that tested and markets the software, which it calls Vanu Software Radio.

Vanu scientists developed and tested the software with funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering.

"There is an economic driver to the small business projects, and both NSF and awardees have to be flexible," said Sara Nerlove, the NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program manager who oversees Vanu's awards. "When the telecom industry crashed, Vanu technology caused wireless operators to look at deployments differently. Vanu was an ideal fit for their changing needs."

Cellular towers dot the landscapes of cities and suburbs, providing millions of Americans with access to wireless communications. The base of each tower is air-conditioned and filled with expensive equipment.

"As technology advances, all that equipment continually needs to be overhauled or replaced," said Chapin.

Besides replacing much of the equipment with a single computer server, radio software can aggregate the equipment from many stations into one location, creating what communications engineers call a "base station hotel," Chapin said.

Vanu Software Radio performs all functions of a GSM (a digital cellular standard) base station using only software and a nonspecialized computer server. The servers run the Linux OS on Pentium processors, further simplifying the technology and reducing costs.

The company successfully demonstrated the technology in two rural Texas communities: De Leon in Comanche County and Gorman in Eastland County. When the test ends, the technology will remain a cellular infrastructure run by Mid-Tex Cellular Ltd.

"The overall system is much cheaper, and therefore offers opportunities to underserved rural areas," said Vanu base station engineer Jeff Steinheider who led the technology installation in Texas.

Although the software currently runs on larger servers using a Linux OS, the software also runs on a variety of commercial computers, so cellular service providers can run the product on economical systems. Chapin said the software's portable design easily adapts to hardware upgrades, noting that even a personal computer could run Vanu waveform software, though it could not handle a large number of customers.

The software has successfully carried phone calls since it was installed in June 2003. The researchers have been tracking how many calls are successful, how well mobile phones communicate with other mobile phones and how well mobile phones communicate with landline phones.

So far the results have been positive, and by early 2004, the system is expected to become fully operational for Mid-Tex Cellular customers.

Large carriers could also use the software to establish base station hotels or upgrade and condense their existing equipment. Beyond that, the technology will allow cellular providers to more efficiently use the frequency spectrum reserved for communication, said Chapin.

NSF awards SBIR grants to small businesses for risky, novel research with a potential for commercialization. Through SBIR and the related Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, NSF encourages partnerships between the small business and the academic sectors to develop a technology base for commercialization. -- National Science Foundation
Shane Peterson Associate Editor