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UWB’s Consumer Introduction

Tue, 02/27/2007 - 2:53pm
Brad Smith

Ultrawideband (UWB) technology has been in use for more than three decades, so it might seem strange that it will finally emerge this fall in consumer products.

On the horizon are some early products intended to cut the USB cables between computers and peripheral devices such as printers, scanners and external hard drives. Among the first will be a delayed wireless USB hub, which both Belkin and Gefen will sell this fall. Down the road, UWB is expected to start appearing in a wide variety of consumer electronics devices and cell phones.

These products finally are coming to retail now that the sometimes rancorous UWB standardization debate has ended – a fight that kept the nascent industry embroiled in years of talking instead of doing.

The standards stalemate ended nearly a year ago when the WiMedia Alliance decided to step outside the IEEE process and seek approval of its technology in other arenas. European standards group Ecma International approved the standard last December and it’s now winding its way through the International Standards Organization. The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) also has set a certification specification for products such as the Belkin and Gefen hubs.

Under the 802.15.3a task group the IEEE effort was disbanded last January, leaving the opposing WiMedia Alliance and UWB Forum to go their separate ways. The WiMedia Alliance, backed by Texas Instruments, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia and others, is moving forward with products and a vision. But the UWB Forum is regrouping, having lost its most well-known member, Freescale Semiconductor, in April.

Bruce Watkins, president of UWB Forum member Pulse~LINK, says the forum has “gone underground” while it drafts a new vision and direction. UWB isn’t a major focus for Pulse~LINK now as it works on enabling distribution of multimedia content over home networks, initially using wires, he says, although the company wants to have wireless as part of its networking plans.

Robin Vaitonis, a spokeswoman for Freescale, says the chip company still believes in UWB but can’t say anything publicly about its plans. She confirms that Martin Rofheart, director of the company’s UWB operations, has left the company “to pursue other opportunities outside of the UWB market.”

The USB-IF is looking at wireless USB to offer a cable-free alternative to the 2 billion legacy wired USB connections consumers are using today. Wireless USB provides a data connection up to 480 Mbps at distances up to about 10 feet, with data rates falling dramatically as distance increases. Unlike normal radio communication, UWB uses pulses of energy spread over huge swaths of frequencies. The FCC allocated spectrum for UWB in 2002 – and other countries are joining in. The technology has been used for at least 30 years, but mostly in military and defense applications, especially radar.

WiMedia Alliance President Stephen Wood says the IEEE logjam kept UWB from going to market for three years. Now that the standardization war is over, though, the technology will move forward rapidly.

Research company In-Stat is forecasting that UWB chipset shipments, starting at zero this year, will quickly ramp up to 289 million shipped in 2010. Analyst Chris Kissel says some 225 million desktop and laptop computers will have UWB by 2010.

“The Personal Area Network has been waiting for a wireless solution to complement the established wired applications,” says Kissel. “This nascent technology is necessary to transmit large data files found in computers or in consumer electronics applications. UWB allows consumers to get rid of their rats’ nests of wires in the living room or near their PC.”

The USB-IF itself has identified a potential wireless USB market of 11 million devices in 2007, with over 300 million in 2010.

Stuart Carlaw, analyst with ABI Research, says UWB will become even more interesting when the technology becomes part of Bluetooth. The Bluetooth SIG approved UWB as a future technology this year but it likely will be two or three years before that reaches fruition. UWB may get into cell phones through Bluetooth, Carlaw says.

One of the Bluetooth technology leaders, Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR), plans on adding UWB to its Bluetooth chips, but hasn’t detailed its plans. CSR says at least half of all cell phones sold in 2007 will have Bluetooth capabilities.

Wood says interoperability of WiMedia chips has been surprisingly smooth, indicating that the specification was written “very tight.” The initial products may not be certified by the alliance but he expects certification to be completed about the end of September or early October.

Although wireless USB will be the focus of the first products, Wood says external hard drives, cameras, PCs, laptops and cell phones will follow soon. Wood knows of several handset manufacturers that are designing phones that would use UWB, so that content such as music, photos and video can be moved to a storage device.

“Cell phones are getting enormous capacity,” he says. “You don’t want to keep all your data, like photos, on the phones, so you’ll want to download it to a PC. Today you’d use USB but soon it will be wireless.”

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