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UWB rocks wireless: it's not a new technology, but ultra-wideband's commercial potential is finally getting noticed. (Business of Technology).

If any cliche were to sum up UWB, it would be "What's old is new again." UWB has been around since the early 1 960s, known alternately as "carrier-free," "baseband" or "impulse" technology. A favorite of the military for uses such as ground-penetrating radar systems, UWB develops, transmits and receives very-short-duration bursts of radio-frequency energy. As a low-power, low-cost and high-speed technology, UWB has been identified by some startups as a viable alternative to current wireless technologies like Bluetooth and 802.11, and in particular 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi. Others view it as an adjunct that can enable wireless home theater systems and personal area networks. Recognizing the commercial potential, UWB companies petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow the technology to operate within spectrum already occupied by existing radio services.

Don't Interfere

The startups, which include companies like Time Domain and Xtreme Spectrum, faced opposition in the form of some major Goliaths: wireless carriers like Sprint PCS and AT&T, the US Department of Defense (DOD), the Federal Aviation Administration, satellite radio companies and global positioning system companies--more than 900 companies filed petitions against UWB with the FCC. For more than three years, these groups protested to the FCC that UWB would cause signal interference with GPS frequencies, public-safety and air-safety wireless networks, cellular PCS systems and some satellite systems.

"Our concern begins and ends with understanding potential harmful interference," explained Jonas Neihardt, vice president of federal government affairs for Qualcomm. "We hope this whole debate can be resolved by the establishment of scientific facts that reasonable people can agree on."

At least one industry source, however, sees the spectrum interference argument as a dodge for the real issue, noting that "UWB is using 2,000 times less power than the laptop you're using, so the issues of spectrum interference are red herrings. It's spectrum politics."

But, the Davids won at least a partial victory. Last February, the FCC approved the technology for limited commercial development--operating in a limited spectrum of between 3.1GHz and 10.6GHz.

Ultra Power

The result is that UWB will, for now, have an operating range of between 30-100 feet. Proponents say that within that short distance lies the ability to move data at extremely high speeds, ranging from 50Mbps to one gigabit per second and requires low power to achieve it. Compare that with Bluetooth, which transfers data between devices up to 30 feet apart at up to 1Mbps; or Wi-Fi, which offers speeds of 11Mbps but takes more power; or the even faster 802.11a, which cruises at 54Mbps but requires even more power.

"Since UWB is a position sensitive technology, the potential uses are many, including search and rescue and inventory tracking", noted Russ Craig, research director for the Aberdeen Group. But one of the most intriguing applications, said In-Stat MDR analyst Gemma Paolo, is high-end home theater. "One of the gaps in 802.11b is multimedia distribution, like home theater equipment," she said. "We see UWB as a solution. Because it has more speed, it can handle more data in terms of video distribution."

Gene Monacelli, national telecommunications leader, management solutions and services of Deloitte & Touche's TMT Group, said that the home entertainment application will only work if the prices are low. He brought up another potential application for UWB: "There is talk that if the power is increased and repeater stations are built, UWB could have yet another, potentially explosive application as a challenge to current mobile phone technology. You wouldn't have to replace the battery for weeks at a time. And, it's pretty secure."

But still, this is a technology not quite ready for prime time. Standards are still in the discussion phase and, while some companies have products in the pipeline, other companies are waiting.

Construction equipment maker Zircon is among those on the fence for now. The firm had taken a look at UWB for use as an underground pipe and sensor, but with a small staff and limited resources, has abandoned it for now.

"We felt it would take too long to develop a product," said Dan Harrell, Zircon's director of communications. "It doesn't mean we won't go back to it at some point. It was strictly a matter of resources. We think there are advantages to the technology, such as being able to find things like rebar and concrete at great depths or behind a wall."

Qualcomm, which had been among the wireless carriers opposing the commercialization of UWB, is still "intrigued and interested in exploring UWB," said Neihardt.

Neihardt doesn't anticipate UWB replacing cell phone technology, but he says that, like Bluetooth and 802.11 technologies, UWB could be incorporated into a phone to handle high-bandwidth applications.

"Let's say that I have a Kyocera smart phone with a chipset that contains a IJWB mode," he explained. "I could run around and use it as a phone, and when I wanted to use my laptop, I could go into UWB mode and sync with the phone without physically connecting the devices. It would let you move more data faster than with Bluetooth."

Aberdeen's Craig said UWB for cell phone applications is a nonstarter. "At the current power levels, it could push a signal through the air only about 10 meters."

Others aren't ruling it out though, especially if the FCC eventually loosens its power restrictions. "I think that, long term, you can use this technology even to make voice calls," said Ben Manny, director of wireless technology development for Intel Labs. "They need to figure out a business model."

Ramping Up for Prime Time

For Intel, UWB is intriguing as a fundamental connector between devices that contain Intel chips.

"It has some unique properties that have a special interest to Intel," said Manny. "One, it has some very high bandwidth wireless lengths. The other very attractive proposition is that it is spectral efficient at very low power."

Intel is investigating ways in which UWB might be incorporated into CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-silicon), Intel's standard chip-making technology. If it's possible, then costs can be driven down because Intel would be able to manufacture the radios using its existing factory lines. That, in turn, would help bring more products to market.

"Long term, what's interesting is bandwidth, and what really determines bandwidth you can use is how quickly you can generate decent pulses," Manny explained. "That's directly tied to the speed of CMOS circuits. As CMOS technology gets faster, it's easier to see the connection between radio and bandwidth speed."

Because of UWB 's short range, Intel doesn't consider it a technology for networking PCs at this point. That's still the territory of Wi-Fi, which has the power to cover an entire house, although with its slower data rate, it's limited when it comes to moving high-bandwidth files like streaming video.

Meanwhile, at Time Domain, the focus is on personal networking, connecting consumer electronics and personal computing devices, both on the consumer and enterprise sides.

Jeff Ross, vice president of corporate development and strategy, sees UWB taking on a different role than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. "Think of Bluetooth as a replacement for a serial cable and 802.11b as an Ethernet replacement," he said. "Where UWB is heading is a different niche. It's a replacement for IEEE1394, which is the cable used to move a lot of data between consumer electronics devices, like from the camcorder to the PC for editing a video. It's also a possible replacement for USB cables."

Time Domain is currently earning revenues selling to the DOD. "We have not yet sold a chipset to personal-area network companies because before February's FCC ruling we couldn't legally sell to commercial companies. Also, we still need standards, which we expect to be in place by the middle of next year. We want to wait for standards so we can make adjustments to the chipsets and companies will buy in volume," said Ross.

The company has designed a demonstration chipset to prove the technology works. The DOD and defense contractors are using the second-generation chipset, which is coming out now. The third generation, said Ross, will be ready once a standard is adopted.

Xtreme Spectrum, however, isn't waiting. "We're expecting our first end-user products to come out Christmas 2003," said CEO Martin Rofheart. "We launched our product, the Trinity chipset, last June. We have a design that achieves 100Mbps data rate, consuming less than 200 milliwatts of power."

The company is not yet announcing its customers, but they will be OEMs of multimedia-centric products, like camcorders, DVD players, digital video recorders and digital cameras.

"The problem we solve is wireless consumer electronics networking for audio/video applications," said Rofheart. "The future is HDTV, gaming and high quality music with detachable speakers."

With the FCC announcing last February that it would revisit the limitations it imposed, UWB companies are hoping those limitations will be loosened, thereby expanding the commercial possibilities. But even Rofheart concedes that it's still too early for that. "We really need to get the products Out and show that we're attention worthy, show the value proposition," he said. "We don't need to have that discussion today."

Tony Kern is deputy managing partner at Deloitte & Touche's Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT) Group
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Author:Kern, Tony
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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