UWB Standards Breakdown Impedes Product Progress

An inability to reach a compromise in forging an industry standard has delayed delivery of Ultra Wide Band (UWB) products and may make it possible for alternative technologies to usurp its role in supporting Personal Area Networks (PANs).

A rift between the different factions had been ongoing for a few years and eventually led some vendors to abandon their efforts to craft an IEEE standard. “One would think that with all that was at stake, vendors would have been able to forge a compromise, but that did not turn out to be the case,” said Kurt Scherf, a vice president with market research firm Parks Associates.

Striving for Compromise

Work on the IEEE’s 802.15.3a standard began in 2003, and almost immediately, the suppliers broke off into warring camps. One side was led by Freescale (NYSE: FSL), which was spun off from Motorola. Freescale promoted an approach called Direct Sequence signaling. Its competitor was multiband orthogonal frequency division multiplexing, or OFDM, an approach endorsed by 170 companies. For more than two years, the group tried to reach a compromise, but as 2006 began it finally reached an agreement to disband its efforts and to let the market decide which technique is better.

Each side continued to feel that its approach was dramatically better than the alternative. The DS group noted that its technique operates in a frequency band already that had been approved by the Federal Communications Commission. In addition, Freescale delivered DS chipsets and a few vendors have incorporated them into their products.

The OFDM supporters claimed that their approach was more efficient and more powerful than the alternative, and that pricing would be lower since chipsets would come from a wider range of suppliers. The disagreement became so heated that vendors even rejected a proposal from Pulse-LINK that featured a chipset capable of supporting both approaches.

Money, Money, Money

Not surprisingly, money seems to be at the heart of the dispute. Potentially, UWB could emerge as a dominant next-generation wireless technology, one that would boost transmission speeds dramatically and therefore gain widespread usage. The networking technique promises to increase wireless speeds to 480M bps, and potentially 1G bps — 10 to 20 times faster than current techniques.

The technology has been designed to operate at distances up to 10 meters and can support a number of applications. In fact, two versions of the technology have been outlined. The first has been built to support point-to-point applications. Here, UWB would serve as a next-generation Universal Serial Bus (USB) and connect PCs to a wide range of peripherals, like hard disks, mice, monitors and keyboards.

The second version supports point-to-multipoint links. Here, UWB would emerge as a potential successor to WiFi networks and connect a wide variety of intelligent consumer devices (set-top boxes, flat panel digital displays, digital cameras and camcorders, DVD players, digital video recorders, stereo components and speakers, wireless home-theater systems, cell phones, and PCs) in PANs.

Freescale: First to Market

With the breakup of the standards effort, the battle between the two approaches now shifts to the marketplace. “The availability of products should provide Freescale with an early advantage,” said Chris Kissel, a research analyst with market research firm In-Stat/MDR. Already Belkin has developed a cable-free USB product, Gefen has announced a wireless USB extender, and Open Interface’s BLUETusk supports streaming HD video over Bluetooth connection via UWB.

The OFDM supporters have been working on a number of fronts, starting with other standards groups. The Bluetooth Special Interest group, the European Computer Manufacturers Association, and the International Telecommunications Union approved its approach as their standards for high speed wireless connectivity.

Five vendors — Alereon, Staccato Communications, Realtek Semiconductor, WiQuest Communications and Wisair — demonstrated interoperable chipsets at the beginning of the year, and they expect that their technology will be incorporated into commercial products during the second half of the year. “Because so many vendors are supporting OFDM, it seems to have the better chance of emerging as an industry standard,” In-Stat/MDR’s Kissel told TechNewsWorld.

While one of the two approaches should eventually emerge as a standard, in effect both sides will likely lose because of the battle. UWB supporters had expected to reach a compromise by the end of 2004 and begin shipping products in 2005. Since those milestones were not reached, it could be harder for the networking option to gain traction in certain markets.

Probable USB Replacement

“UWB has a good possibility of being used for high speed wireless PC connectivity,” said Parks Associates Sherf. Indeed with Intel as one of its major backers, UWB seems like to be incorporated into many PCs as the successor to USB.

The use of UWB for PANs seems a bit more dubious, however. Consumers have invested a lot of money in WiFi products, and vendors enhanced those products so they operate at faster speeds. “While it is possible that consumers may opt for USB, it is more likely that they will stick with WiFi,” Parks Associates’ Scherf told TechNewsWorld.

Whether or not that prediction will prove to be true will become clear as vendors start shipping their UWB products, a transformation that should occur quickly now that the standards debate has reached its uncompromising conclusion.

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