With relatively little fanfare, the Valley is emerging as an important center for wireless technology.
As many as 50 local companies ranging from small start-ups to giant corporations are designing and developing integrated circuits, software, hardware and services used in wireless products such as next-generation cell phones, biomedical equipment and personal computers.
Among companies working with wireless technologies in the Valley are Intel, Motorola, Phillips, General Dynamics and STMicroelectronics. Other companies working in the wireless field in Tucson are Analog Devices, Raytheon and Texas Instruments.
To provide an academic backbone for the industry, these and other companies have joined with the National Science Foundation to set up Connection One, a $2 million industryuniversity cooperative research center at Arizona State University to develop new wireless technologies and train the future work force for the industry.
To be a member, each company contributes $50,000 per year, although some are contributing more for help on special projects, said Sayfe Kiaei, director of the center and a professor in ASU’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
About 30 faculty members and several hundred ASU graduate students are helping to build the wireless future, he said.
So far, the 9-month-old center has developed a single chip that allows cell phones to operate on multiple standards. The ultimate goal is to develop a universal wireless device that will function as a telephone, pager and daily planner and connect to the Internet through a personal computer at home or office, he said. ASU is working on chips that would go inside such a device as well as other aspects of the technology such as power supply alternatives to conventional batteries.
Kiaei said another goal of the center is to attract new companies and research projects to the Valley, further enhancing the Valley’s reputation as a wireless hub.
The wireless future will include far more than just advanced communication devices, he said. Also under development by industry are automotive technologies such as wireless brakes and steering. Engines could be located on each wheel and controlled wirelessly by an onboard computer, eliminating the possibility of failure by mechanical linkages.
Wireless devices may also become important in bioengineering, he said. For example, a device carried in a patient’s shirt might measure blood pressure, cholesterol level and other vital signs and transmit the data directly to the doctor or hospital.
The Defense Department is funding development of detectors, chemical sensors and remote-sensing devices that use wireless technology.
Also, all cell phones must have a global positioning system function by 2005 so operators will will be able to tell immediately where the caller is located in the event of an emergency.
"Within 10 years, there will be a seamless network of wireless devices connected together," Kiaei predicted.
The emerging wireless world threatens to make some familiar technologies obsolete, he said. With more people using cell phones as the primary telephone at home and with cable systems providing the bulk of high-speed Internet access, the traditional copper-wire telephone line to the house may cease to be useful, he said. Even cell phone towers may become obsolete in 10 to 15 years as they are replaced by satellites for wireless communication, Kiaei said.
But high-capacity fiberoptic lines are likely to remain an important backbone of the worldwide communications system, he said.
Eric Maass, chairman of the center and director of technology strategy for Motorola’s wireless and broadband systems group, said Motorola is primarily looking to Connection One as a place to recruit new employees.
"Some companies are interested in the research projects, but more are interested in the graduate students who go through these projects and learn about radio frequency analog and mixed-signal chips," he said. "We want them to be future employees who are already knowledgeable and have experience with this technology."
Industry also intends to tap into the expertise of professors working at the center who are knowledgeable in specific technologies such as antennas, he said.
"We may not use their products, but they can give us good advice and analysis," Maass said.
Intel hopes to benefit from the research at Connection One and closely mentor researchers to supplement their work with industry perspectives, said Bobby Nikjou, Intel’s mixed-signal integrated circuit design manager. Also the company sees the program as an source of qualified employees, he said.
To raise awareness of the Valley’s wireless capabilities, Connection One is organizing a wireless expo to be held in November at a site to be determined, possibly ASU or Phoenix Civic Plaza. Companies will show their products and technologies, which will "let people know more about us nationally," Kiaei said.
Other areas that have developed into centers for wireless technologies are San Diego, the headquarters of cell phone giant Qualcomm; Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Silicon Valley in California; and the Washington, D.C., area, where companies can draw on the expertise of Virginia Tech.