Qualcomm’s Wi-Fi Chip Could Turn Handhelds Into a TV Set-Top Box

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Qualcomm today launched a tri-band chip that will offer dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a fast wireless video transfer technology all on a single piece of silicon. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 capabilities have long been integrated together on a single chip, but this is the first to add support for the 60 GHz wireless frequency, which is specific to high-speed video and backed by the Wireless Gigabit Alliance. With the new chip, Qualcomm is adding the potentially final piece to the puzzle of how to best stream video content from smartphones and tablets directly to high definition television sets without interference from other wireless data protocols.

The trend of first using smartphones, and now tablets too, as a set-top box for the television became more apparent to me at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Why? Because dual-core processors with multiple graphics cores began to appear in handsets, giving smartphones the capability to not only record images in 1080p, but to smoothly play them back as well. The first half of this video demo I captured in January illustrates the capability using the Motorola Atrix, to play 1080p video using an HDMI cable.

Many of today’s smartphone and tablets can lose the HDMI cable by streaming such videos over traditional Wi-Fi, but as more connected devices gain and use Wi-Fi radios — Wi-Fi traffic is expected to surpass that of wired by 2015 — there is more data competing for a home network’s resources. By moving video away from the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands and into its own 60 GHz spectrum, wireless video transfers and streaming in the home should offer a consistently better experience.

In 2005, I experimented with HDTV streaming over Wi-Fi using my Xbox 360 and a computer with a TV tuner and over-the-air antenna, and found the experience to be hit or miss. I ended up adding a second router and network to my home to do exactly what the Wireless Gigabit Alliance is doing: isolate video transfer to a specific network. To do that, however, a chip like Qualcomm’s new AR9004TB will have to find its way into tablets, smartphones, and television sets. Without the same 60 GHz wireless support in an HDTV, mobile devices would have to use today’s Wi-Fi frequencies to transfer video; something they can already do today.

But televisions are ready for wireless chips according to some industry heavyweights. In an exclusive GigaOM interview last week, Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, said he expects all televisions sold globally will have a built-in Wi-Fi connection. That trend has already begun with a number of television manufacturers, but it’s not a stretch for these same companies to add 60GHz support using Qualcomm’s chips in future models: Think of Apple’s AirPlay feature, but without the need for an AppleTV box. Why wouldn’t TV makers consider it, given that modern Wi-Fi network raw speeds range from 54 Mbps to 600 Mbps and the new 60 GHz frequency enables transfers ranging from 1 to 6 Gbps. That’s up to a ten-fold boost in wireless speeds; precisely what a bandwidth-heavy activity such as video transfer requires for a good experience.

So Qualcomm’s new chip could find its way into televisions or set-top boxes, but a bigger opportunity may be found in turning smartphones and tablets into the set-top box. Which scenario makes more sense: downloading a movie to watch at home and then syncing it to a mobile device to watch elsewhere or simply downloading it once on a tablet or smartphone and then beaming it wirelessly and instantly to a large screen as needed? I’d prefer option one  two, provided I had the storage capacity on my mobile device.

What may be good news for consumers getting higher-quality HD video streaming, could disappoint some chip firms that are trying to push their own versions of wireless HD video transfer, such as SiBeam, Amimon and even Celano, which is using traditional Wi-Fi frequencies instead of 60GHz for video transfer. Those companies were all hoping their technologies would win out, but in 2009 when Intel and Broadcom teamed up to form the Gigabit Wireless Alliance it looked as though the smaller startups were doomed. It still looks grim for them.

The combined chip from Qualcomm is also the first resulting from the recently announced completion of its Atheros buy and shows how serious Qualcomm is about expanding into the home market as mobile devices become the remote control and content delivery mechansims for essentially all of the connected gadgets in our lives. Perhaps it will manage to drag Google and Android — it’s bosom buddy — along for the home invasion.

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