High-frequency electronics manufacturers may have been pondering that question these past two years, wondering what became of the wireless business. The industry is nearing the end of what has been a tumultuous two years, where it seemed that the bottom has dropped out of nearly every wireless market.
Cellular technology is finally, gradually moving into 3G, with research progressing to strategies for fourth and even fifth generations. Yet, the cellular or PCS portion of the wireless industry is no longer large enough to sustain all of the microwave companies that once relied upon it for growth. True, some device suppliers have been able to develop the right product mix to capture a generous share of the cellular hardware market—a recent visit to RF Micro Devices (Greensboro, NC) verified that company's stunning growth since 1991 is largely due to sales of chip sets to cellular markets.
Yet, the number of cellular handset suppliers is relatively small, implying that only a limited number of chip suppliers are needed to support even a large volume of handset sales. And with fierce competition among service providers forcing those companies to carefully monitor their infrastructure expenditures, opportunities have diminished in that part of the cellular market. Still, wireless is more than just cellular communications. Two "network" technologies, Bluetooth and WLANs, have survived long gestation periods and now hint at tremendous long-term growth potential. Designers of WLAN devices, systems, and software now have a collection of IEEE standards to guide them, including 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g. Bluetooth also has a standard promoted by the IEEE, 802.15. And with a critical mass of more than 700 commercial Bluetooth products already on the market, it appears that Bluetooth and WLAN applications will continue to grow for the next several years.
Add to this an increasing demand for broadband Internet access, and a need for methods beyond DSL and cable modems for broadband-to-the-home or "last mile" connections, and it is easy to envision individual residences as two-way servers on a vast voice and data Internet. And wireless technology may just be the most cost-effective means of achieving such a vision.
No one can predict the future of wireless. But trends can be noted at a show such as the Wireless Systems Design Conference & Expo (www.wsdexpo.com). It might be the easiest way to track the key applications and whether any emerging technologies, such as UWB, stands to displace existing wireless standards.