Dueling ultrawideband teams to push ahead

Backers of two different types of UWB (ultrawideband) networks this week will announce moves toward consumer products that use the short-range wireless technology.

The MBOA (Multiband OFDM Alliance) will announce it has formalized the MBOA Special Interest Group (SIG), which will complete a UWB specification and make it available to member companies at Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. Meanwhile, ODMs (original design manufacturers) using UWB chips from Motorola subsidiary Freescale Semiconductor, which use a different technology, will unveil modules complete with radios and software for consumer electronics and computing products.

UWB is intended for very high-speed wireless connections over 30 feet (9 meters) or less that could link home entertainment devices or take the place of USB (Universal Serial Bus) cables. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) has a task group to set a standard for the technology, which would be called IEEE 802.15.3a, but members of that group are deadlocked between MBOA's approach and the "direct sequence" technology backed by Motorola and other vendors.

The MBOA, a group of more than 160 member companies that support an ultrawideband technology using OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing), formalized the SIG so it could complete a pair of UWB specifications and make them available to member companies, said Roberto Aiello, an MBOA board member and founder, president and chief executive officer of UWB vendor Staccato Communications. Leading MBOA members include Intel, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and UWB-specific vendors such as Staccato and Alereon.

The SIG needs formal rules and legal status in order to manage the specifications because of issues such as intellectual property rights, according to Jim Meyer, vice president of business development at Alereon. The specifications should be finished by year's end, with chips out in volume in mid-2005 and consumer products shipping during next year's fourth-quarter holiday shopping season, Aiello said.

In addition to finishing and promoting the OFDM specification, the SIG will work with other standards bodies to align its own technology with other layers of software to ensure that complete systems work well, Aiello said. These include the Wireless USB Promoters Group, the WiMedia Alliance and the 1394 Trade Association. The Wireless USB Promoters Group has endorsed MBOA's specification exclusively, Aiello said. The WiMedia Alliance was formed to define and promote specifications for PANs (personal area networks), and the 1394 Trade Association was organized around the IEEE 1394 multimedia connection standard.

MBOA's physical layer specification for UWB is complete, but details are still being worked out on the MAC (media access control) layer, which should be signed off by the end of this year, according to Aiello. The group already has equipment in the lab delivering USB 2.0 throughput at its full 480M bps (bits per second) speed, he said.

Formalizing the SIG is the latest step by MBOA to move its technology forward rather than wait for the IEEE task group to settle on a standard, Aiello said.

"We would like to see the IEEE adopt our specification, but I don't know if or when it's going to happen," Aiello said. "Virtually the whole industry is working on the MBOA specification, and this guarantees interoperability and multiple vendors and lower cost for consumers. This is not a technical issue. This is just an economic issue," he said.

An executive of Freescale, which itself is moving ahead with direct sequence UWB, questioned that outlook. Freescale's first-generation XtremeSpectrum UWB chipset began shipping in volume this month, and the introduction next week of modules from ODMs will bring the technology one step away from consumer products, said Martin Rofheart, director of UWB operations at Freescale. Without naming the ODMs, he called them leading low-cost, high-volume manufacturers.

The direct-sequence camp is focusing on very short ranges, with Freescale offering 110M bps over 10 meters in its first generation of chips. By the end of next year, it should offer sample chips that will deliver 1G bps over 10 meters, Rofheart said. Replacing USB is a key application for Freescale as well, he said. Direct-sequence vendors, joined under the UWB Forum, will not form a SIG but will turn to the IEEE or another independent body to manage the direct-sequence UWB specification, according to Rofheart.

The two sides' bickering is holding back the technology's adoption, according to one industry analyst.

"There's been a lot of posturing and positioning that I think is unnecessary," Craig Mathias, founder of Farpoint Group, in Ashland, Massachusetts. "It's very important that both sides get to a single standard." MBOA's latest move is a step in the opposite direction, he said.

Though the two technologies are unlikely ever to interoperate, they could be brought together into a single standard with two modes, similar to the way IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN standards evolved, Mathias said. That could foster lower costs through higher volume chip production. Just as important are the perceptions of system vendors who would use the technology, he said.

"The customers feel that the blessing of a well-known technical organization is sufficient justification for them to make the investment," Mathias said.

The chairman of the IEEE 802.15 standards group, which oversees the UWB task group and others, has been encouraging a single standard with multiple modes, but he isn't very worried about the deadlock. Only the U.S. allows the use of UWB so far, so it should serve as a test market, said 802.15's Bob Heile.

"You've got to get some real stuff out there and see how it works," Heile said.

"It's not really important that we have a single solution now. ... Diversity is a good thing now," he said. Global adoption is likely to happen in three to four years, after the U.S. experience teaches important lessons about demand and interference, according to Heile. But a standard at least would establish an independent body to certify vendors were implementing each form of the technology correctly, he added.

Freescale's Rofheart said he agrees the IEEE should allow two modes under one standard and let the market work out which it wants. Meyer, at Alereon, thinks the market benefits from the current situation.

"I believe it is better to have two completely dissimilar solutions, because one of them has to exit the market, and the sooner that happens, the better for everyone. ... You'll shorten the period of confusion, which could potentially dampen the demand," Meyer said.

Rofheart said market competition will knock one technology out of contention and expressed confidence that direct sequence is far ahead of the MBOA vendors.

"You've got to enter the market before you can exit it," Rofheart said.

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