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CES 2013: UrbanHello Takes a Step Toward the HD Telephony Era

A sleek new cordless handset will talk to old phone analog networks or new digital ones

2 min read
CES 2013: UrbanHello Takes a Step Toward the HD Telephony Era

When I first saw the UrbanHello phone, last night at the Consumer Electronics Show, I laughed. A speakerphone for landline phones? The landline phone system is going away. Then I realized what it was—a product at the leading edge of the very telephony revolution IEEE Spectrum had just done a story about.

A few weeks ago we published an interview about the end of the public phone network—this is the idea that the circuit-switched network is going away, in favor of end-to-end packet-switching. And just like the transition from analog to digital television brought us HD TV, the big benefit to moving from analog telephony to digital would be HD telephony. UrbanHello is the first HD phone I’ve seen, one of the first ever.

The phone is basically a cordless handset that can communicate with any base station that adheres to the DECT-GAP standard. If the base station is part of a home’s analog (PSTN) phone network, it just w

orks as another handset. If the base station is digital, however, and uses the emerging CAT-iq standard, then the UrbanHello unit will make an HD-quality call. The phone's keypad is cleverly hidden in the base.

The handset broadcasts the call out loud on its speaker, and frankly, sounded pretty good even in the terrible audio conditions of CES—a room packed with exhibitors and press. In a living room, using HD, it would be a huge step up from the lousy speakerphone systems we use today. UrbanHello won a CES 2013 “Innovations Award,”  and, of course, it’s a Kickstarter project.

Our interview last month made the point that HD has faced a chicken-and-egg problem: Why build products, when the networks aren’t all-IP, and why switch the networks over to IP, when there’s no obvious benefit to end-users. HD voice can’t come soon enough. It’s good to see someone getting the ball rolling.

Image credit: UrbanHello

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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