Ultra-wideband startup Alereon comes in with an edge

Alereon Inc., a startup that wants to sell UWB wireless technology for consumer electronics, already has a pedigree in the field.

The fabless semiconductor Austin, Texas company starts out with more than 20 engineers from Time Domain Corp., which has been working on UWB (ultra-wideband) since 1987. The technology so far has been used in specialized applications such as the military and law enforcement but soon will be poised to hit the consumer market.

A standard defining UWB is still in the works. It is seen as a wireless technology that's faster than Wi-Fi, with a shorter range and better characteristics for carrying multimedia content, according to InStat/MDR analyst Gemma Paulo.

Alereon is pitching UWB as a way to wirelessly link computing, home electronics and mobile devices. Among other things, it could be a wireless replacement for USB (Universal Serial Bus) 2.0 and FireWire, said Jeff Ross, executive vice president of Alereon and a former Time Domain executive. For example, UWB might be used to download video from a camcorder to a PC for editing, download music to an MP3 player and connect a DVD player to a TV from across a room, he said.

The minimum specifications for a UWB standard call for bandwidth of 110M bps (bits per second) over 10 meters and 200M bps over four meters, with a development path toward 480M bps, probably over about one meter, he said. UWB has mechanisms for guaranteed quality of service that make it more appropriate than Wi-Fi for multimedia, he added.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year approved the use of UWB by unlicensed wireless systems. UWB uses a broad portion of the radio spectrum. The U.S. Department of Defense and Federal Aviation Administration had fought the approval because of fears UWB could interfere with navigation systems and GPS (Global Positioning System).

Marketing Time Domain's technology for commercial applications called for the creation of a new company, Ross said. Time Domain had been working on UWB for commercial applications since about 1998 and Alereon now plans to sell chips to makers of equipment that would use the system.

However, between regulatory approval and market deployment lies the thrashing out of standards. Alereon backs the standard that the Multiband OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) Alliance is proposing to the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.), which garnered about 60 percent of the votes at the last meeting of the IEEE's 802.15.3a group, Ross said. It needs 75 percent to pass, which he hopes will happen at the group's next meeting in September. A competing proposal is being spearheaded by XtremeSpectrum Inc. and Motorola Inc.

If that proposal passes in September, Alereon probably would ship standard IEEE 802.15.3a chips in sample quantities in the middle of next year and in volume in the fourth quarter, Ross said.

However, if that approach does not pass, Alereon might ship products that meet a specification supported by members of the MultiBand OFDM Alliance, he said. Intel Corp., Texas Instruments Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. are among the members of the Multiband OFDM Alliance.

"I think it's possible you'll see some other ways those companies (could) get together to bring a product to market," Ross said. "With all those companies backing a particular architecture that's already pretty well agreed upon, we could get it to market pretty quickly."

Either way, Alereon won't ship a product until the stage has been set in terms of standards.

"You cannot go out with a nonstandard or prestandard chip and sell more than a few thousand units for a high-end application," Ross said.

The industry is eagerly awaiting a standard and it's too early to make a firm assessment of UWB, InStat's Paulo said.

"The biggest unknown is just how the products are going to work. ... There isn't a whole lot of silicon and we haven't seen end products yet," she said.

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