Ultrawideband wireless technology has been called "Bluetooth on steroids." Like Bluetooth, its personal-area network (PAN) cousin, UWB is designed to replace cables with short-range, wireless connections, but it offers the much higher bandwidth needed to support multimedia data streams at very low power levels. And because UWB can communicate both relative distance and position, it can be used for tracking equipment, containers or other objects. In a recent technology demonstration, Freescale Semiconductor Inc. in Tempe, Ariz., showed a UWB device that transmitted at a data rate of 110Mbit/sec. at a range of up to 10 meters. That bandwidth -- 100 times faster than Bluetooth and twice the capacity of the fastest Wi-Fi networks -- is enough to pump three concurrent video streams over a single UWB connection. Vendors are promising UWB products that support speeds up to 1Gbit/sec.
Waiting for UWB
While the prospect of 100Mbit/sec. data transfers is exciting, UWB is probably three or more years away from widespread adoption, especially for business use, according to chip makers and analysts. Government regulators outside the U.S. haven't approved the use of UWB, and standards bodies are arguing over the final specification.
Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., predicts that the first products with UWB chips, designed for home theater applications, will debut next year. Mass adoption of the technology won't come until 2007, he says.
Business applications, when they come, will center on UWB as a replacement for the Universal Serial Bus standard, says Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. UWB could be used to easily connect several laptops to a single projector to handle video or slide presentations, or it could be used to back up large files quickly, he says. Eventually, workers could carry a portable storage device equipped with a system image and UWB connectivity. Users would be able to sit down at any workstation, connect via UWB and start working.
"It's very, very significant technology, and UWB is a guaranteed win," adds Mathias, noting that 50 companies are making UWB chips, including heavyweights like Intel Corp. But vendors have yet to agree on a standard. Intel is backing one camp, while another industry giant, Motorola Inc. (through its Freescale subsidiary), is backing the other.
UWB faces serious regulatory hurdles as well, "so it's hard for it to move forward," Mathias says. The U.S. is the only country to approve spectrum for use by UWB radios. Regulators worry that UWB will interfere with a range of other wireless devices that operate in the same spectrum, including cell phones, says Steven Wood, a strategy planner at Intel.
Opposition by foreign chip makers and foreign governments might be lessening, however, says Gary Anderson, a delegate in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). He says tests shown recently to regulators from the European Union demonstrated that interference is not a problem.
"UWB is here to stay, and within the next six months we'll see a great warming in the international community for UWB," says Anderson, who is CEO of Boston-based Uraxs Communications Inc., a developer of UWB devices. The ITU is moving toward a UWB mandate that should be ready in less than a year, he adds.
Unfortunately, at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., the matter of reaching a UWB standard is still "politically deadlocked," according to Wood and others.
The IEEE study group for the 802.15.3a PAN draft standard is at a stalemate as the two vendor groups push competing specifications. Intel is aligned with the 140-member Multiband OFDM Alliance (MBOA), which advocates the Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) standard, while Freescale and the 30-member UWB Forum are pushing for Direct Sequence UWB (DS-UWB) technology. UWB won't progress until the two sides reach a compromise -- something neither appears ready to do.
Martin Rofheart, director of UWB operations at Freescale, says DS-UWB has a "two-year time-to-market advantage" over MBOA approaches. Freescale has demonstrated a chip set called XtremeSpectrum, which it expects to appear in home wireless digital video applications this fall, he says. Freescale says the chip will support speeds of up to 1Gbit/sec. over 2 meters and will be available by the end of next year.
Intel's Wood says Rofheart's claim of a two-year lead time over MBOA is "ludicrous." Intel and other MBOA vendors will "make it a real contest" for DS-UWB vendors, and the MBOA has nearly five times as many vendors as the UWB Forum, he added.
Mathias says he wouldn't want to choose which approach is better or which will win out. "It's still early, but the amount of innovation by all the companies involved is indicative of the great potential UWB holds," he says.
If UWB doesn't catch on, other technologies in the fast-moving wireless arena could take the lead. For example, a nascent Wi-Fi wireless LAN standard, IEEE 802.11n, is expected to offer bandwidth of 200Mbit/sec. Some analysts say it's possible that by the time UWB products arrive, 802.11n devices may be available, providing higher throughput than first-generation UWB devices. Although the technology most likely would require more power than UWB, one research firm predicts that it will leap ahead of UWB for home use. That might slow UWB's momentum for business use as well -- but don't count on it.
While some vendors are already touting 802.11n compliance, that's "a clearly misleading claim," according to Gartner's Dulaney, who categorizes the standard as "embryonic."
Ultimately, the success of UWB will also depend on its cost. That's still an unknown, although chip vendors predict that volume prices will eventually drop to about $5 -- the same as was predicted for Bluetooth. Yet the promise of Bluetooth as a universal cable replacement didn't come to pass because the benefits of adding the technology weren't seen as compelling enough to justify the incremental cost for low-end peripheral devices such as keyboards, mice and even printers. With its higher bandwidth, UWB may offer a more compelling reason to adopt wireless PANs in the enterprise -- and eclipse Bluetooth in the process.
"Bluetooth is a loser," Mathias says. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group claims that the industry is shipping 2 million chips per week, but "who uses it?" he asks. "With UWB, the economic potential is so great that it's hard to imagine it won't move forward." 48060
UWB standards face off
The Multiband OFDM Alliance's specification gets its name from the fact that it divides UWB's 7,500-MHz-wide frequency range between 3.1 GHz and 10.6 GHz into smaller, 528-MHz segments. A mandatory mode supported by all MBOA devices uses three bands below 5 GHz.
Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing transmits data in 312.5 nanosecond time slots, alternating among three frequency bands. Spreading information across multiple bands allows the technology to be very efficient, offering high bandwidth at low power levels, according to Srinivasa Somayazulu, a senior staff researcher at Intel.
The UWB Forum's DS-UWB technology transmits data at a rate exceeding 1 billion pulses per second and spreads the transmissions across the widest possible frequency band. Forum members are also promoting acceptance of what's called the Common Signal Mode, which works as a kind of traffic cop among the different UWB standards, says Freescale's Martin Rofheart.
Taking a UWB test drive
UWB is getting an early workplace test drive in the new Siebel Center for Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Engineering. The building, which opened April 30, will have UWB sensors installed in one wing by August, following tests for interference, says professor Roy Campbell.
UWB sensors and tags from Ubisense Ltd. in Cambridge, England, will be used to identify the location of the teachers and students who wear them. Special software will pinpoint each individual's location in the wing.
The university is also working on a research project called Gaia, with funding from the National Science Foundation, to design a middleware operating system to manage resources used by workers in the wing.
Campbell says several ideas for applications of UWB have been floated. One would involve developing a way to make a document readable when a user has it in a certain location but leave it encrypted when the document is read elsewhere.
Another would tailor an office to a particular individual automatically, giving him access to certain files or applications. In that case, the Ubisense tag could trigger an automatic sequence of system authorizations, and a video camera could verify that the user wearing the tag was indeed the right person.
"In the medical area, there are all sorts of applications for UWB, including how to make sure patients aren't left in the corridor," Campbell says. But ultimately, he adds, UWB's success will depend on "how cheap you can make the technology." -- Computerworld (US)
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.