Wireless and Patent Free
By By Niall McKay in Berkeley, California, Wed Apr 09 12:30:00 GMT 2003

The Berkeley Wireless Research Center is a research consortium of academics, industry and government, which was set up to design the next generation of wireless chips.

Smart homes that automatically adjust the temperature when they sense that somebody enters the building, self-replenishing refrigerators that order the milk when it's running low, even smarter office buildings that can re-route telephone calls to the land line nearest you, or cars that find the quickest route home avoiding a traffic accident or road works. Indeed, many, if not all, of us are by now familiar with the concept of the ubiquitous computing -- where a network of thousands of sensors constantly watches and responds to our every need. The glue that is expected to tie this digital Valhalla together is, of course, wireless - be it third generation cellular, WIFI (802.11), emerging Ultra Wide Band technology or all of the above and more.

The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California at Berkeley created the Berkeley Wireless Research Center to attempt to try and develop the processor or chip technology that could make these visions a reality. What's unique about the center is that it actually makes all of its research finding available to the industry and the general public for free.

"The basic idea is to sit between the communications theorists and general industry," says Gary Kelson, executive director of Berkeley Wireless Research Center (BWRC). "So we are undertaking what we call pre-competitive research by taking pure research that is a little too advanced for corporate research and development centers and building working prototypes and models."

Situated about a block from the campus above an Eddie Bauer sporting goods store on Allston Way in downtown Berkeley, the center is a partnership between academia, industry and government and grew out of a project called InfoPad - an effort funded by IBM, Intel, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create a multi-media Personal Digital Assistant.

Sensibly, Berkeley computer science department professors realized that there are many technical challenges to overcome before we would be able to move to ubiquitous computing. For example, to move from one type of a network to another you need to change equipment, that even third generation data rates leave a lot to be desired, that everything is limited by power consumption constraints, and that we are a long way from being able to build ad hoc sensor networks of the size and scale that we need.

So the department that gave the world BSD UNIX among many other inventions decided that would concentrate on several key areas. These include Ultra Wide Band, 60 Ghz Wireless LAN Technology, Ultra Low Power PicoRadio, and Multi-carrier Multi-Antenna Systems. All involved developing low cost and low power CMOS communications systems-on-a-chip solutions.

To achieve this it brought industrial partners such as Intel, ST Microelectronics, Cadence, Agilent Technologies, Ericsson, Infineon Technologies, Atmel, Qualcomm, Philips and HP (Nokia has just recently joined), and government agencies such as DARPA, the National Science Foundation, and the US Army Research Office, and raised $5 million in funding per year from them. The end result is that it can throw sixty masters and PhD students, a dozen of top professors and representatives from the sponsoring companies at advanced wireless research projects. Over 80 percent of the center's budget goes towards student funding, some twenty percent goes towards running and administration costs and of course the university and industrial partners pay the professors and staff salaries.

The Berkeley engineering and computer science professors decide the scientific direction, which is run by the industry partners and then PhD students are invited to propose doctoral research that will contribute to the research.

"We have a research agenda but we take our impetus form our member companies," says Kelson. "Because we want to work in areas where we are going to have significant impact which is difficult when you are trying to do long range research."

Chief among the centers research concerns is to apply advanced communications theory to cost effective system on a chip solutions using complementary metal oxide semiconductor or CMOS chips. These are particularly suitable for the communications applications because they require less power than conventional processors.

"We are currently using prototypes that ST Microelectronics have provided us with which are 130 nanometer CMOS chips but we will be soon moving to 90 nanometer chips," says Kelson.

One of the projects attracting most attention at the moment is BWRC's 60 Ghz Radio project. It will endeavor to design a low power multiple antenna wireless LAN that will enable low cost, low power mobile multimedia communications but utilizing 5 GHz of unlicensed bandwidth at the 60 GHz.

Currently, there are few working models or devices available at this frequency range so it is very difficult to predict noise levels or performance so BWRC aims to build the chip sets and create what it hopes will be the first working prototypes of the technology.

It is also developing Ultra-Low Energy Wireless Networks or PicoRadio technology for use in ubiquitous sensor and monitor networks. To achieve this it needs to create Meso-scale low-cost (less than 50 cents) radio's for data acquisition that are fully integrated are smaller that 1 cm3, that minimize power and energy dissipation and that are capable of enables energy scavenging or getting energy for sources other than batteries. The need to form self-configuring ad-hoc networks that could contain 100's or even 1000's of network nodes. Such radios would be used for sensor and actuators.

The center is also working on Ultra-Wideband (UWB) systems which could be very useful for either transmitting small amounts of data over long distances or large amount of data over short distances - in a building for example. UWB radios could also share spectrum with existing narrowband broadcasters without causing too much interference. The research group aims to design UWB transceivers using conventional CMOS technology thus achieving cost savings.

Certainly, the center is undertaking chip research, which few startup companies can afford to undertake these days.

"We are obviously not in the product development business but our aim is to build proof of concept prototypes," says Kelson.

Indeed, one could say that the University best known for its freethinking in the 1960s is carrying on that tradition into this century albeit in a very different way by providing free access to its research.

It's Education Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles on the future of mobility.

Niall McKay is a San Francisco-based who has written for the Financial Times, Wired Magazine, Salon, and the New York Times. He also contributes to National Public Radio's KQED FM radio in San Francisco. He can be reached at www.niall.org