Intel develops the first fully digitized Wi-Fi radio

At the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco last week, Intel CTO Justin Rattner and Yorgis Palaskas, the company’s research lead in radio integration, unveiled a Wi-Fi radio comprised almost entirely from the same components in the company’s microprocessors.

“We are now looking at moving a lot of the parts on the periphery, like Wi-Fi, into the chip itself,” said Jan Rabaey, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, to MIT Technology Review. “If wireless can move into digital and miniaturize at the same pace as digital, that’s a good thing.”

All radios, technically known as transceivers, are comprised of a receiver, which takes in the signal from the outside, and a transmitter that sends out a signal to the world. Both of these components are made up of smaller components, such as amplifiers, mixers and filters. Some of these components have never before been digitized, thus remaining in their traditional analog format, which does not operate well when miniaturized.

The implications of this development are HUGE.

By building this Wi-Fi radio using the same components used to develop their microprocessors, Intel has opened up the possibility that a Wi-Fi radio could be added to anything that has a chip inside. If you look around your home or office, its difficult to find anything that doesn’t have a chip inside it these days.

Another major implication of this advancement is the potential to significantly limit the power consumption of Wi-Fi. According to the Technology Review piece, a digital Wi-Fi radio that takes up 1.2 millimeters of chip space will draw 50 milliwatts of power. By using miniaturized components the same radio can be compressed into an area of 0.3 millimeters and will consume only 21 milliwatts, which is comparable to the best radios made mostly of analog components.

Yet another exciting implication is the potential to program the radio using software and change its functionality on the fly, as digital components are fundamentally much more programmable than analog components.

Finally, this development means future smartphones and tablets could come with multiple radios combined into one, which has the potential to radically reduce the cost of manufacturing cell phones. Currently a separate component is needed for 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other radios. If all of these radios are combined into one digital component it would be possible to use software to switch between them on the fly.

So far no other companies have made announcements that they are working on similar devices, but it’s a safe bet that at least Qualcomm is working on this problem as the leading developer of microchip technology for smartphones. The digital health community can only benefit from this development as it becomes cheaper to manufacture, and easier to program, radios for various applications.