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Ultra Wideband's destiny up in the air

By , Network World
January 12, 2004 12:07 AM ET

Network World - A decision at an IEEE meeting this week could bring together two factions battling over a new wireless technology. But it's more likely to drive them to all-out market warfare.

Cut-throat capitalism might prove to be the fastest and most efficient way to create a de facto standard for Ultra Wideband (UWB) wireless networking. Advocates say UWB could become the wireless equivalent of USB to link an array of mobile devices and consumer electronics at distances up to 30 feet and at data rates of up to 480M bit/sec.

In corporations, UWB could become the main way that notebooks and PDAs connect with peripherals and share multimedia data in an ad hoc manner.

The IEEE 802.15.3a Task Group (TG3a) is charged with crafting a high-speed, physical-layer standard for handling wireless multimedia traffic. The parent 802.15 group is developing standards for so-called personal-area networks, including those based on two other wireless technologies, Bluetooth and Zigbee. Task Group 3a members earlier this year winnowed 23 proposals down to two, both based on UWB. About 60% have voted in three meetings for one proposal, from the MultiBand OFDM Alliance (MBOA). In effect, 40% prefer the DS proposal. But any proposal needs 75% to be adopted.

The task group has been deadlocked since July, acknowledges Bob Heile, who chairs the TG3a and 802.15 groups. "We have two positions that are both claiming to best satisfy the market requirements, and no ability to prove [their claims] one way or the other," he says.

UWB's roots go back nearly 40 years. Until recently, UWB has been limited mainly to classified defense communications and to systems such as ground-penetrating radar or wall-penetrating imaging. Then, in early 2002, the FCC ruled that UWB radios could run on a given chunk of public spectrum (3.1 to 10.6 GHz) under strict limits.

Conventional radios, such as those in WLANs, have a single radio signal called a carrier wave that beams over a specified frequency. By contrast, UWB doesn't use a carrier wave: instead it uses short pulses of energy and spreads them over a range of frequencies using well-known modulation techniques such as orthogonal frequency division modulation (OFDM) or direct sequencing. These two techniques are the basis of the rival proposals offered to TG3a. In both cases, advocates say the result is very high bandwidth, very low power, and relatively simple and inexpensive radios.

Competing proposals

MBOA is a group of about 40 vendors including most of the world's biggest makers of semiconductors, consumer electronics and computers.

The MBOA proposal divides the UWB spectrum into at least three bands, and uses OFDM to create numerous, narrow channels within these, and to "hop" between them. "If you break up the spectrum into 500-MHz chunks, it simplifies the [radio] architecture and lets you use CMOS [silicon technology]," says Mark Bowles, vice president of marketing for UWB start-up Staccato Communications, and a co-founder of MBOA. OFDM is touted for its efficiency in capturing radio energy, especially useful when the energy reflects off various surfaces and hits the receiving antenna out of phase, causing interference.

The second proposal, called Direct Sequencing, is based on technology created by Xtreme Spectrum, which Motorola acquired in November.

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