The ability to operate at 60 gigahertz—where wavelengths are only a few millimeters—is crucial to the wireless personal area networks (PANs) that Motorola and other tech vendors are looking to offer. Whereas Wi-Fi signals—which operate at frequencies no greater than 5.8 gigahertz—can penetrate walls, glass and other barriers, enabling one wireless access point to serve an entire household, 60-gigahertz signals are more easily contained. This means a household could have one 60-gigahertz network in one room and an entirely different 60-gigahertz setup in the next room (hence the name "personal area" network). Operating in the wider bandwidth 60-gigahertz range also increases the speed of Wi-Fi data transfers.
"The seminal point about moving to higher frequencies is that there is more bandwidth available, which means it's faster," Moddel says. This translates into content that is delivered faster over wireless networks, which is important because the demand for large data files and video content is on the rise.
Phiar's technology is optimal for building radios because metal-insulator electronics can detect higher frequency signals than silicon-based semiconductors can. "Phiar's technology vastly bumps up the speed at which you can detect an incoming signal," Ian Lao, a senior analyst with In-Stat, a technology research firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a division of tech publisher Reed Elsevier, Inc. This has many implications in the development of new sensors and telecommunications equipment that will be able to quickly detect and accurately read wireless signals.
This could be a useful component in a high-speed communications network, "the kind of thing that a wireless company would want for their base stations," says Michael Kozicki, an Arizona State University professor of electrical engineering and director of the school's Center for Applied Nanoionics. Phiar technology could become a central part of imaging systems such as airport security devices that rely on radiation moving at terahertz speeds to scan passengers for contraband, penetrating materials otherwise opaque to visible or infrared radiation.
Motorola and Phiar's approach is expected to face competition from a number of companies eager to take wireless communications beyond Wi-Fi speeds. IBM and Taiwanese semiconductor maker Mediatek, Inc., are developing their own very fast chip sets that can wirelessly transmit a full-length, high-definition movie to and from a home PC, handheld device, retail kiosk or television set. IBM and Mediatek plan to ultimately develop ways to wirelessly connect high-definition TVs to set-top boxes using millimeter-wave radio technology, which takes advantage of the highest frequency portion of the radio spectrum where massive amounts of information can be sent quickly.
The companies will integrate IBM's millimeter-wavelength radio chips, antenna and package technology with Mediatek's digital base band and video processing chips. IBM demonstrated a prototype packaged chip set as small as a dime to wirelessly transmit uncompressed HD video two years ago.
"Don't sell your stock in all of those silicon companies because this is not a replacement for silicon in any way, shape or form," Kozicki says. Although Phiar's metal-insulator technology could become a crucial component of future high-frequency imaging systems or communications networking equipment, it is not meant to perform the kind of processing that silicon does so well.