Low-Power Wireless Option Emerges

Just when you thought wireless technology couldn't get any more bleeding-edge, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has lowered a major regulatory hurdle for yet another wireless technology to make a play for the airwaves.

Supporters of ultra-wideband wireless say it could be used for all sorts of amazing new applications. They envision "security bubbles" around homes and personal-area networks that activate home appliances when you come near them. Police and fire departments are already trying out devices that can detect people behind walls.

Ultra-wideband works inside the same increasingly crowded radio frequencies used by cell phones, police radios, and garage-door openers. It sends out short electromagnetic pulses that last half a billionth of a second, followed by pauses perhaps 200 times that length. By spreading them over a wide (roughly 1-GHz) area of the spectrum, it uses extremely low power and little bandwidth.

So, ultra-wideband wireless isn't likely to interfere with other devices, "and could permit scarce spectrum resources to be used more effectively," the FCC states in its May 10 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The document starts a process of public comments and technical wrangling that is likely to lead to final approval of ultra-wideband wireless in about a year, according to people familiar with the process.

The FCC's action was the thumbs-up that Time Domain was waiting for.

The company develops ultra-wideband chips, called PulsON, and is one of only three companies granted special waivers by the FCC to begin developing certain products. Its product is RadarVision, the device that firefighters can use to detect the location of people in burning buildings, or police can use to find criminals in hiding.

Another company, Zircon, is best known for its Stud Sensor tool. It is working on a similar device that lets construction engineers detect steel girders and other metal objects inside concrete. The third company, USRadar, has ground-penetrating ultra-wideband technology. Among other things, it could be used by law enforcement to detect buried bodies.

Ultra-wideband technology can enable a number of gee-whiz uses, says Ralph Petroff, chief executive officer of Time Domain. The technology is unusual in having positioning, radar, and radio-transmission capabilities all rolled into one, Petroff notes.

The home-security bubble "could detect the difference between a fly or a bug and an intruder," he predicts. It could also detect your pending arrival (thanks to a small identification card you wear, perhaps, on your belt) and open the garage door as you drive in. The see-through feature might detect an intruder in the garage and forewarn you in your car--while trapping the person by keeping the door closed.

Home entertainment systems could become wireless using ultra-wideband technology. Time Domain has developed a prototype of a set-top box that transmits programming to televisions you can carry with you throughout the house. The TVs could recognize you and automatically turn on your favorite channels.

Time Domain's PulsON chips transmit at 40 megabits per second, several times that of emerging home-networking standards like HPNA and Bluetooth.

UWB can position transmissions far more precisely than today's global positioning system devices, Petroff says. This capability promises still more futuristic functions. It could help find lost pets or children in crowds, for example.

Time Domain is developing chips for a golf product, called Caddy, that precisely measures the distance from tee to hole. It will help golfers choose the right club and avoid having to "step out" to gauge distances, cutting up to an hour off the typical game, according to Time Domain spokesperson Eileen Heaton. Golf courses will probably rent the wearable devices, she says.

UWB's shortcoming is that it can't transmit over long distances. So, it won't replace existing cellular technologies, but will complement them by providing a bandwidth option inside buildings and homes, Petroff says. When you enter a UWB-equipped building, your mobile phone connection might switch automatically from the cellular tower to a UWB transmitter attached to a PBX system.

One analyst gives high marks to ultra-wideband wireless's potential.

"Technically, it works--it makes sense," says Ian Gillott, a vice president at the IDC market research firm. "This could be the next big thing."

Ultra-wideband will probably take off when major network and telecommunications take an interest in it, in the next two to three years, he says. Major industry players have taken note, Gilliott adds. For example, the German electronics giant Siemens is an investor in Time Domain.

Time Domain's Petroff expects the first ultra-wideband products could arrive in as little as six months, or could be delayed as much as 18 months, depending on the speed of the FCC approval process.

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