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Vendors square off over wideness of ultra wideband

Many believe the short-range wireless technology could one day replace USB and make cords all but extinct, but the technology's future is a subject of intense debate.

It has all the drama of a Tom Clancy novel: a battle for control, an underdog taking on impossible odds, and lots of money at stake. Though the ending to the ultra wideband story has yet to be written, the emerging technology for wireless data transmission could be a best seller for the mobile computing industry, despite its as-yet-undecided value for the enterprise.

Unlike most wireless signals, which are wave-like in nature, ultra wideband (UWB) sends data in a series of short pulses. UWB sends data using low power, so signals can only carry a few feet in distance, but the signals use a wide spectrum of frequency bands, making it possible to carry large amounts of information.

Additionally, UWB signals don't interfere with household items such as cordless phones and garage door openers because they operate on different frequencies -- UWB signals use the 3.1 GHz to 10.6 GHz frequency range. Household items don't operate above 3.1 GHz.

UWB has been around for decades, but until recently it was the exclusive property of the U.S. military. However, in February 2002, when the Federal Communications Commission bowed to pressure from industry groups and approved commercial use of UWB.

Since then, consumer electronics vendors have latched onto UWB in hopes of using wireless signals to transmit data among televisions, stereos, DVD players and the like, eliminating the spaghetti ball of cords that turn the average home entertainment center into a tangled mess. Meanwhile, its future in the enterprise is a matter for debate.

Standards must be established before UWB can find its niche, and that process is proving to be more difficult than anyone expected. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is currently developing a UWB standard under the 802.15.3a heading, but the group is being tugged in two different directions.

In one corner, companies such as Intel Corp., Samsung Electronics Inc., and other members of the Ultra Wideband Working Group advocacy body are pushing a multiband standard that would carve the UWB spectrum into several chunks.

Ben Manny, director of wireless technology development for Intel, said splitting the spectrum would ensure that UWB technology is simple to use, scalable, backward-compatible with future iterations and capable of someday being used internationally.

"The U.S. is the only country that currently allows ultra wideband usage. Other countries may not allow the same frequencies to be used, and we wanted a standard that would be easily adaptable. This multiband approach fills that need," Manny said.

At the same time, a smaller, opposing group led by Xtreme Spectrum Inc. and Motorola Inc. is advocating a second approach. It wants the IEEE to instead approve its proposal, called direct sequence code-division multiple access (DSCDMA), which would divide the UWB spectrum into only two chunks.

Diane Orr, a spokeswoman for Xtreme, said her company's proposal makes the best use of the spectrum allocated for use by the FCC.

"The FCC has given us about 10 GHz of frequency, which is a huge amount of spectrum. The other [group] is going to break it into smaller bands, and they would frequency hop from one band to another," which can cause degraded performance, Orr said. "The intention of ultra wideband is just that, to use an ultra-wide band of frequency, and what we're doing is maintaining the integrity of all of that spectrum."

When the IEEE's UWB committee met last week in San Francisco, it failed to garner enough of a consensus to recommend either standard for approval. The group will try again to agree upon a single standard when it meets in Singapore in September.

As a result of the slow standards process, enterprises won't be affected by UWB technology for some time, said Gemma Paulo, a senior analyst with In-Stat/MDR, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Still, a handful of vendors looking to benefit from being first to market are expected to launch consumer products that incorporate non-standardized UWB technology during January's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and enterprise products could follow.

At the same time, UWB's eventual place in the enterprise is unknown at this point. Paulo said products using UWB will likely enter the consumer market in the next six to 18 months, but enterprise usage could take far longer.

She said that some vendors see UWB morphing into an enhanced flavor of wireless USB connectivity, eventually eliminating the need for cords connecting PCs and peripherals. Others see it as a way to send video signals through the air over short distances, such as from a computer to a larger monitor or projection screen.

Despite its potential, Paulo said, UWB isn't likely to compete with existing wireless standards such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Bluetooth, she said, transmits data at about 700 Kbps, much slower than UWB, and has already found a successful niche with PDA and wireless phone makers.

"Wireless LAN has a much longer range -- 150 feet -- and I think a lot of people see Wi-Fi as a data transmission technology for networking, and UWB is seen as promising for moving video around wirelessly," Paulo said.


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