We’re not out of spectrum. Let’s talk terahertz

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I know we’re freaked out about spectrum shortages in the U.S. as we clutch our iPhones and download the latest cute kitten video on YouTube, but new advances in chip technology could help alleviate these concerns. Thanks to recent research at the University of Texas at Dallas and the Semiconductor Research Corporation, we may soon be able to tap into the terahertz wavelengths that are hovering out there at the edge of the infrared band just before microwave band spectrum starts. This could open up some new options for broadband or even device-to-device communications over very short ranges.

Of course, by soon I mean in five years or so. But why not break out the party hats, because the UT Dallas guys have discovered a way to make the very specialized radios needed to transmit and receive terahertz signals using conventional CMOS manufacturing processes. This is a big deal for the industry, because once you can make a chip using traditional manufacturing processes you make it less of a science project and more of a real business. It’s the silicon equivalent of crossing the valley of death.

However, the primary properties of terahertz wavelengths aren’t going to be for broadband, despite researchers showing off a 1.5 Gbps terahertz radio last year. The defense, security and medical fields are super excited because this gives people the equivalent of X-Ray vision. Terahertz waves can be used to see through clothes, layers of paint, packages and even walls. The downside is, the wavelengths also have been discovered to destroy DNA. If you think the drama around the health risks of mobile phone or Wi-Fi radiation are large, just wait until someone proposes more terahertz radios.

However, because I’m a broadband nerd that has covered efforts to promote and create chips in the millimeter wave band (it’s right next door to the terahertz wavelength) I am excited about new uses for terahertz spectrum for possible wireless data. Any use would be difficult in most common scenarios given that oxygen, water and other atmospheric particles absorb the wavelengths. However, in the upper atmosphere where the signals wouldn’t degrade as quickly, terahertz radios might be useful for delivering signals from satellites to airplanes at faster speeds than are currently on offer.

So despite a lack of clear opportunities to use this spectrum today, I’m glad researchers have figured out a way to make the radios using conventional means. At least this opens a door to engineers playing with the airwaves to see what’s possible. And given how much we love our wireless data, we’re going to need as many possible options as we can find.

Image courtesy of Flickr user mugley.

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