Technology development company MagnaCom thinks it has a new wireless approach that could revolutionize wireless communication. That's the bottom-line takeaway from the company's presentation (in-person demonstrations will be given at CES in January). With a sheaf of freshly minted patents and an impressive pitch, MagnaCom is claiming that its use of WAve Modulation (WAM) instead of the current QAM
(Quadrature Modulation) will provide the bandwidth next-generation content networks desperately need.
WAM vs. QAM
To understand what MagnaCom is claiming, we need to first talk about the current system. All existing cellular technology is based on QAM. In QAM, data streams are amplitude modulated -- meaning that the strength of the signal is varied over a fixed period of time. Each stream is out of phase with the other by 90 degrees -- meaning that they reach peak and trough at slightly offset times. Digital version of QAM implementations transmit more data in a given power envelope by increasing the number of phases.
This creates fundamental problems as the number of phases grows. In order to add phases but hold power steady, each phase must receive less power. This increases noise and raises the bit error rate, which means high order implementations of QAM are less reliable than lower order implementations. Wider QAM requires a higher SNR (signal to noise ratio) and typically requires more power.
Wave modulation is different -- somehow. That's a little vague, I know, but MagnaCom wasn't willing to go into detail in exactly how its new technology improves on the classic QAM implementation. According to MagnaCom, its new technology can offer a 10dB signal strength increase (which works out to 400% more range than competing solutions). According to MagnaCom, WAM is more efficient, makes better use of available spectrum and can drive farther distances thanks to higher efficiencies.
Note that some of these claims are either/or scenarios -- you can use QAM to push longer distances, or you can hit current distances in less power. WAM supposedly can integrate right alongside QAM in a typical radio and requires only about 1mm of silicon area.
The Long and Winding Road
Because MagnaCom is an IP licensing firm, the next step is showing off its technology via FPGA
. It's hoping to attract attention from the likes of Qualcomm
and Intel while working with the ITU or IEEE on upcoming wireless standards. The 5G roadmap is far enough ahead that a technology like WAM could theoretically fit into the timetable if it actually delivers as promised. And that, I think, is a significant "if."
Don't get me wrong -- I love the idea of a super-efficient, long-range, resilient, high-speed wireless network system as much as anyone, but it strikes me as significant that the world continues to rely on QAM-era technologies despite the current existence of multiple alternatives. Whether its because of dated infrastucture, spectrum limitations, or frequency interference, we continue to rely on this particular technology.
WAM could theoretically disrupt that system, but it's going to need to offer enormous advantages to shift towards a new wireless architecture. While devices can incorporate WAM and QAM on the same silicon, cell towers and backend infrastructure would need to be upgraded.