Vendors push ultrawideband as wireless alternative

Several vendors are pushing a technology that could vastly multiply the transfer rate between wireless devices as a new wireless networking standard, as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.15 Working Group for Wireless Personal Area Networks meets in Dallas this week.

All but two of the 24 proposals for a new wireless personal area network (WPAN) standard focus on ultrawideband (UWB), an emerging technology similar to Wi-Fi but with the potential to boost current transfer rates more than tenfold.

UWB uses a wide frequency -- of thousands of megahertz compared to the less than 100 MHz used by cell phones -- allowing transfer rates to approach 100M bits per second (M bps), compared to WiFi's 54M bps. Further out, transfer rates for UWB could reach one gigabit per second.

UWB doesn't emit radio signals stronger than the unintentional emissions produced by most electronic devices, so it doesn't interfere with other wireless gadgets. Its range would be less than that of WiFi, however, at about 10 meters.

That range would likely make UWB ineffective for most home or corporate wireless computer networks, but backers see potential in its healthy transfer rates for linking such equipment as cable boxes and flat-screen plasma television sets. UWB would eliminate the "aesthetic disadvantage" of having a wire connected to a wall-mounted flat-screen TV, and its speed allows acceptable wireless transfer rates for video, said Chris Fisher, vice president of marketing for chipmaker XtremeSpectrum Inc.

XtremeSpectrum is pushing one of the UWB proposals at the IEEE, and on Monday it announced that it has the support of Motorola Inc. The companies have signed a memorandum of understanding to work together on using XtremeSolution's UWB technology in Motorola's wireless devices.

Fisher sees UWB has a viable alternative to Bluetooth, another WPAN technology backed by companies such as Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp. that is being used to connect computers to printers and other devices. UWB offers transfer rates at least 100 times faster than those of Bluetooth.

But Ben Manny, director of wireless technology development at Intel Corp., said UWB may not end the use of Bluetooth. Bluetooth has device interface capabilities that could run on top of a UWB signal, meaning the technologies may be complementary, he said. Intel has its own proposal before the IEEE working group and has informal partnerships with several other companies to develop UWB.

UWB was developed by the U.S. Army about 15 years to allow radar to see through trees, Fisher said. The same technology can be used to send wireless signals through walls.

While it's likely that some flavor of UWB will be adopted as the IEEE's new 802.15 WPAN standard, both Manny and Fisher said, the process will not happen overnight. After the meeting to hear proposals in Dallas this week, the working group will meet again in May and July to narrow the field. Manny expects a single standard to emerge from the group by September, with devices employing UWB appearing on the market several months after that.

"We're just trying to get to a common direction here," he said. "If it takes too long, you'll see several companies coming out with proprietary solutions that aren't standardized."

Fisher agreed that a standard is needed. "Clearly, if this technology is going to be consistently developed it needs to be standardized," he said.

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