White Spaces Geolocation Database

For now, all White Spaces devices will use a geolocation database to avoid interfering with licensed spectrum users. The latest FCC Memorandum and Order on TV White Spaces says that it is still OK to have a device that uses spectrum sensing only (one that doesn’t consult a geolocation database for licensed spectrum users), but to get certified for sensing only, a device will have to satisfy the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology, then be approved by the Commissioners on a case-by-case basis.

So all the devices for the foreseeable future are going to use a geolocation database. But they will have spectrum-sensing capabilities too, in order to select the cleanest channel from the list of available channels provided by the database.

Fixed devices (access points) will normally have a wired Internet connection. Once a fixed device has figured out where it is, it can query the database over the Internet for a list of available channels. Then it can advertise itself on those channels.

Mobile devices (phones, laptops etc.) will normally have non-whitespace connections to the Internet too, for example Wi-Fi or cellular data. These devices can know where they are by GPS or some other location technology, and query the geolocation database over their non-whitespace connection. If a mobile device doesn’t have non-whitespace Internet connectivity, it can sit and wait until it senses a beacon from a fixed whitespace device, then query the geolocation database over the whitespace connection. There is a slight chance at this point that the mobile device is using a licensed frequency inside the licensee’s protected contour. This chance is mitigated because the contour includes a buffer zone, so a mobile device inside a protected contour should be beyond the range of any whitespace devices outside that contour. The interference will also be very brief, since when it gets the response from the database it will instantly switch to another channel.

Nine companies have proposed themselves as geolocation database providers. Here they are, linked to the proposals they filed with the FCC:

Here’s an example of what a protected contour looks like. Here’s an example database. Note that this database is not accurate yet.

Actually, a geolocation database is overkill for most cases. The bulk of the information is just a reformatting of data the FCC already publishes online; it’s only 37 megabytes compressed. It could be kept in the phone since it doesn’t change much; it is updated weekly.

The proposed database will be useful for those rare events where the number of wireless microphones needed is so large that it won’t fit into the spectrum reserved for microphones, though in this case spectrum sensing would probably suffice. In other words, the geolocation database is a heavyweight solution to a lightweight problem.

Broadcom connectivity chip reaches the market

Back in July Broadcom announced that it had started production shipments of its BCM4325 chip.

Yesterday iFixit.com found one in the new Apple iPod Touch. This is the first published instance of a device containing this chip but many more will follow. Broadcom has scored a coup with this device; it contains Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and FM, all on a single die fabricated on a 65nm process.

This is the most highly integrated connectivity chip (the term refers to all the non-cellular radios in a phone) yet to reach the market. Previous combo connectivity chips have combined Bluetooth with FM, and in one instance (from Marvell) Bluetooth with Wi-Fi. But the BCM4325 is the first to market with three radios. TI has announced, but not yet shipped, a similar chip with even more impressive specifications: the TI Wi-Fi will include 802.11n and the TI FM will include transmit as well as receive.

Connectivity technology in cell phones is evolving very rapidly, as the phone manufacturers accelerate their competition on the feature treadmill. Next will be GPS, driven this time by the network operators, who see location-based services as a potential goldmine. Two chip manufacturers have announced, but not yet shipped, combo Bluetooth, FM and GPS chips.

Connectivity chips were the subject of a report I wrote last year with the Linley Group; we will deliver an update with expanded coverage later this year.

Personal Navigation Devices: the end is nigh

Garmin announced today a cut in its revenue and earnings forecast for 2008.

It blamed a challenging macroeconomic climate and intense competition. One bright spot was that “The automotive/mobile segment gross margin continued to be sound at 39% as PND pricing declines moderated.” But this will prove to be a transient plateau in a precipitous decline in the PND market.

Although we continue to earn industry-leading market share, the sector is not growing as rapidly as earlier anticipated and consumers appear to be more cost-conscious than ever.

Garmin may have many strong business opportunities (for example lifestyle-oriented market segments like fitness), but the generic PND is not one of them. The reason is that PND functionality is being built into smartphones. The incremental cost to the phone manufacturer is just a few dollars. The new iPhone is a case in point. It has great mapping software from Google and the screen is large and high-resolution; this PND functionality is effectively thrown in for free.

But it gets worse for PNDs. GPS in phones is intrinsically superior to GPS in PNDs, because the data connection through the cellular service dramatically speeds up time to first fix and can also improve location accuracy.

Garmin appears to have recognized that smartphones will eat its PND lunch, and has embarked on a smartphone development, the Nuvifone. But this is a very, very challenging gamble. The handset business is brutal, not just competition-wise but because of the complexities of regulation, certification and network validation. Garmin must have expected this, but it was still surprised:

The nüvifone will not be available in fourth quarter as previously announced. While we had hoped to have carrier launches in the fourth quarter, we have found that meeting some of the carrier specific requirements will take longer than anticipated.

The Nuvifone may turn out to be a winner for Garmin, but it’s a long shot. It is possible to differentiate on commodity features in handsets, but not in the mass market. An analogy with cameras would be misleading. For GPS there is no essential technical requirement equivalent to a good camera lens in terms of differentiating value in a handset.

CSR 2Q08 results: in line. Company focusing on “Connectivity Centre”

CSR released its 2Q08 results today. Quarterly revenues are 13% down year on year ($188.4m vs. $215.9m), but in line with expectations and up 17% on Q1. The CEO blamed the decline on “macro economic pressures.”

The press release says that CSR has completed “repositioning the business around the Connectivity Centre.”

What CSR calls the “Connectivity Centre” was the topic of a report I wrote with the Linley Group last year and which we are in the process of updating for 2008. The idea of the connectivity chip is that cell phones have a multiplicity of radios in them these days: several cellular standards and frequencies, Bluetooth, FM radio, GPS, Wi-Fi and some other minor ones. The way it has shaken out so far is that cell phone OEMs have implemented each of the non-cellular radios separately on their phone motherboards, or with two or more of them mounted together on a multi-chip module, or “connectivity chip.” Recently many vendors have started doing single-die implementations of connectivity chips, like Bluetooth plus FM, or Bluetooth plus Wi-Fi.

CSR with its BlueCore 7 is the first to combine Bluetooth (plus Bluetooth LE, formerly Wibree), FM (transmit and receive) and GPS on a single chip. This looks like a winning combination, because these three technologies are the ones with the highest attach rates to cell phones, and CSR has managed to implement the GPS with a sufficiently modest silicon footprint that CSR doesn’t charge for it if the OEM doesn’t want to use it.

Also mentioned in CSR’s results release is the news that the low-power Wi-Fi chip that CSR announced in 2004, the UniFi 2, is finally shipping in phones: “our embedded Wi-Fi product will be shipping in six smart phones by the end of the current quarter.” Actually, one of their analyst presentations appears to indicate that it is already shipping in the Mio A702.

CSR says it is “the only ‘pure play’ connectivity company.” This is passably true, but each of the major cellular baseband companies except Freescale now has, or is in the process of putting together a suite of connectivity products. CSR also says it “is moving fast to create and lead this market.” It will have to move fast. Qualcomm has already swept multiple connectivity technologies into its latest cellular baseband offering. This is the likely end-game for all the cellular baseband vendors. The questions are: is this what the handset OEMs want, and if so, how long will it take?