Wireless wildcard

While everyone is talking about public WiFi hotspots and faster 802.11 standards, the next wildcard in wireless networking is Ultra Wideband (UWB).

Promising rated transmission speeds as high as 500 megabits per second, UWB will be good for bandwidth-intensive applications like streaming video

over short distances.

Don’t expect much action for a while yet, though. There is still no formal standard for UWB and commercial products are a year or three away.

In February 2002, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the U.S. authorized commercial use of UWB technology without licences. A group of companies called the Ultra Wideband Working Group is promoting the technology. The IEEE 802.15.3 standards committee is working on a wireless physical-layer standard for UWB, which is to be called 802.15.3a and will probably be ratified sometime late next year or in 2005.

Gemma Paulo, a senior analyst at In-Stat MDR, says the first UWB products will probably appear in the consumer electronics market, possibly late this year but maybe not until early 2005. Xtreme Spectrum, a California company building UWB chip sets for consumer electronics, says products will ship in volume by late 2004, but Intel Corp., which is actively involved with UWB, doesn’t expect standards-based products much before 2005.

One obvious use for UWB in the home would be transmitting video — movies for instance — from one consumer electronics device to another. However, UWB has possibilities for PCs too. Ben Manny, director of wireless technology development at Intel, says the biggest opportunity is as a wireless form of Universal Serial Bus (USB) 2.0, which works at 480 Mbps. Intel has built UWB prototypes that deliver 250 Mbps and is working on one that should keep pace with USB 2.0, Manny says.

One drawback of UWB is its short range — only 10 metres. This is part of the reason UWB installations won’t need licences, but it means a single access point won’t cover a large home. For some uses the solution might be a mesh, where every device on the network is an access point. So traffic can travel from the DVD to the stereo to the PC. But that implies a fair number of devices or separate repeaters, which would require that the technology be fairly cheap.

Intel is putting some of its considerable weight behind UWB, working with developers and standards bodies. Paulo says Intel’s clout could do a lot to get UWB into the mainstream.

A handful of companies, such as XtremeSpectrum and General Atomics, are focusing on UWB, and some larger companies such as Intel, Sony, Samsung and Panasonic have shown interest. UWB could be significant. Then again, higher-speed versions of WiFi now under development could cannibalize its market. UWB is a wildcard, not a sure thing.

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