This week, the Federal Communications Commission begins an auction for two chunks of radio waves that have long been considered useless. Thanks to new technologies and demand for wireless broadband, the market is ready to buy 24GHz and 28GHz spectrum. Meanwhile, in the unlicensed band, which anyone can use and isn’t sold off by the FCC, another of the so-called millimeter wave spectrum bands is gaining interest.
Roughly a decade ago, engineers had hoped to use the 60GHz band for sending fat files over short distances using a technology called ultra-wideband. At the time, the market didn’t see a compelling need for the technology, so it was shelved.
But in the last two years, as we’ve put more connected devices on the market and insisted that those devices have a greater understanding of the world around them, the band has experienced a renaissance. In short, the internet of things may be the pull that 60GHz needs.
First, however, we have to talk about what this spectrum band can and cannot do. These are short wavelengths that can carry a lot of data, but they can’t carry it very far. Nor do they travel easily through walls, trees, glass, etc. Historically, that last problem was a deal-killer, but now, new antenna technology and the ability to do a lot of computation near the antenna means companies can build devices that can pick up bounced signals and reassemble them on said devices.
For example, Facebook is working with Qualcomm on a Wi-Fi broadband project that uses 60GHz spectrum to deliver backhaul for Facebook’s broadband efforts. The project, called Terragraph, aims to provide broadband access in underserved areas. Qualcomm will use a version of Wi-Fi called 802.11ay. The earlier version of Wi-Fi over 60GHz was called 802.11ad and was promoted two years ago as a way to deliver a lot of content over short distances in rapid bursts.
So far, this tech has found limited use in streaming 4K television wirelessly as well as in AR/VR sets. And those use cases may still drive greater adoption of this technology. But it’s only when you stop viewing it solely as a networking technology that 60GHz really gets interesting.
At this wavelength, companies can use the spectrum much like radar to detect people, movement, and depth at a close distance. Texas Instruments considers the technology to be so promising that this month it launched a new chip using the 60GHz spectrum to offer reliable sensing in industrial settings. The chip will be used to detect humans in areas where they aren’t supposed to be, and also to help make it safer for robots to work more closely with humans.
Both people detection and imaging take the networking tech associated with 60GHz into another realm. The ability to get fine-grained details and depth at close distances may one day offer a replacement for cameras. Caleb Banke, a senior marketing manager at Qualcomm, says that its customers in the consumer device space are looking at using 60Ghz for face detection, and some are even thinking about embedding it into televisions for gesture recognition.
If those use cases come to pass, device makers could utilize the same 60GHz-capable radio for both networking and imaging. Those use cases aren’t too far-fetched. For example, Israeli firm Vayyar offers a device aimed at the consumer market that uses imaging technology in the 60-77GHz range to detect falls.
The device, called Walabot Home, is designed to detect movement in bathrooms. But while it can “see” through light impediments such as shower curtains, it’s not actually a camera taking an image. Rather, it’s watching for movements that look like falls; once it detects one, it alerts a predetermined emergency contact. Another iteration of this device used the same radio tech to “see” studs and leaks inside walls.
So now that we want our devices to share richer information quicker and in larger amounts than ever before, 60GHz is getting another chance to prove its worth.