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Wireless data racer gets into gear

A Japanese lab hopes to meld cellular networks, Wi-Fi hot spots and street wireless grids into one system that lets drivers tap into online content at high data rates.

Japan is known for cool technology--from video phones to home robots to high-definition TV--that's incompatible with standards in the rest of the world. It's become known as the "can't use it outside Japan" syndrome.

Now one Japanese laboratory plans to set up a Singapore branch to work on getting motorists hooked up, partly because it wants to avoid the in-Japan-only problem.

Communications Research Laboratory, a Tokyo-based institute, says it will invest $1.7 million in a new Singapore facility dedicated to developing vehicle communications systems and 4G, or fourth generation, mobile technology.

"With our new Singapore center and research alliances, we hope to develop technologies with results that can attain international standardization," said Masayuki Fujise, director of CRL's Wireless Communications Laboratory.

CRL is a lab with links to the Japanese government that researches communications and photonics (the integration of functions typically handled by optical fiber into silicon chips), covering areas from ultrawideband radio to satellites.

The Singapore branch, with help from other Asian bodies, hopes to meld cellular networks, Wi-Fi hot spots and "street cells"--a wireless network based on roadside antennas and transmitters--into one system that lets drivers tap into online content at incredibly high data rates.

"If a driver goes into a hot spot, he can be alerted of the nearest gas station or restaurant," Fujise said.

"In addition, he can access multimedia content and watch a replay of the morning news at speeds of about 100mbps (megabits per second)." That rate is 10 times faster than that provided by current fixed-line broadband access in Singapore.

Street smarts
Millimeter-wave signals can pack in much more data than can current lower-frequency radio signals. The flipside is the smaller area of coverage, a flaw that CRL's street cell concept is designed to address.

Fujise said millimeter-wave technology need not replace wireless standards like 802.11a and 802.11b, as they can all coexist. He expects such ultrahigh-speed vehicle communications systems to appear in test cars in about three years.

CRL and its Singapore partners will also work on cellular technology that goes beyond the current 3G, or third-generation framework defined by the International Telecommunication Union--in other words, 4G.

While this 4G mobile network promises video conferencing and high-speed Internet access, the most important change is that its next-generation handsets can adjust to suit a person's needs.

"A user could be downloading a movie clip at lower data rates using the cellular network, but when he moves into a wireless hot spot, the download automatically kicks into higher gear--all this switching is transparent," said Fujise.

The development of software defined radio (SDR) applications is the key, he said.

Many see software radios--which can mimic any kind of wireless standard using only programs stored in memory--as the answer to the problem of incompatible wireless networks.

"Right now, the software inside a mobile phone is configured to access only the cellular network. But with SDR, the software algorithm can be tweaked to allow interoperability between different wireless networks," Fujise said.

In Singapore, CRL is working with the Institute for Infocomm Research, a government-funded technology research body, as well as Nanyang Technological University.

Singapore is not CRL's first destination for overseas expansion. The Japanese research institute also established its Asia Research Center and a Thai Computational Linguistics Laboratory in Bangkok, Thailand, last year.

CNETAsia's Winston Chai reported from Singapore.