It walks through walls. It sounds like a laundry detergent or a hip-hop radio station. Most people simply haven’t heard of it. Some analysts call it “superman.” But now the term “ultrawideband” (UWB) is fast becoming the mobile industry’s most anticipated and argued about emerging technology for high-speed personal area networks (PANs).
Industry titans are already clashing over these tiny chip-size radios and piconets, still in their formative stages. And UWB, first unleashed when the FCC liberated large chunks of unlicensed military spectrum for commercial applications in February 2002, could easily become fodder for the next big standards war—i.e., Betamax vs. VHS, CDMA vs. GSM and now UWB in two different technology stripes pitting Motorola vs. Intel and Texas Instruments in a race to bring UWB to multiple home, mobility and enterprise markets.
“UWB is Bluetooth on steroids,” says industry analyst Peter Meade, the editor of the electronic newsletter UWB Insider, which profiles the emerging applications and standards battles in the ultrawideband industry. “We’re talking about downloads of huge files over short distances at 480 Mbps, with very low power and practically no interference,” Meade says.
Originally based on adaptations of military wireless technology developed in the 1960s through the 1980s, UWB has morphed from a fairly basic transmission standard using channel pulse position modulation (PPM) techniques to a more advanced direct sequence (DS) and orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM), enabling multiband spectrum splits and simultaneous video, audio and data streaming.
“The technology will be leveraged in the enterprise as an enhancement/extension of Wi-Fi (802.11) and a replacement for all cables—including USB, 1394 (firewire), parallel and serial,” explains Jack Sullivan, a founder and CEO of Emergent Networks, a UWB consulting company. “The mainstream vision is talking about cable replacement. But really, the enterprise is pushing toward UWB as a longer-term solution providing generic, ubiquitous wireless connectivity in-building, with UWB as a primary wireless link and 802.11 as a backup wireless solution.”
Envisioned is a high-performance mesh network using UWB’s point-to-point, short-range transmissions complemented by Wi-Fi’s longer-range connectivity. If the technology is implemented widely—and the first commercial products are not expected until late 2005 and 2006—UWB will deliver multiple streams of data and video several orders of magnitude faster than Bluetooth’s current 1.2 Mbps data rate. UWB chipsets will be installed in wireless laptops, smart phones, hard drives, flash memories, digital cameras, even home entertainment audio/video centers equipped with set top boxes and flat-panel projection TVs. Further, the market will segment into high (110 to 400+ Mbps) and low data rate UWB (80 to 100 kbps): high-rate radios will be implemented in mainstream home entertainment, wireless handheld devices and PCs; while low-rate devices (800 to 100 Kbps) will be used in specialized verticals such as two-way radio frequency identification (RFID) tags for load tracking and GPS locator devices.
In the entertainment arena, UWB will eliminate wires, enabling “freedom of component placement,” says Martin Rofheart, director of UWB Operations at Freescale Semiconductor, a wholly owned Motorola subsidiary targeting chipsets for the consumer/home entertainment marketplace. “It’s a way to get a video signal from a source to a display device—multiple devices and new form factors (e.g., flat panel displays or digital light projectors). That’s the driver for the introductory market we’re enabling right now.”
In the PC and mobility space, “UWB will create a wireless desktop,” says Mark Bowles, a vice president of marketing and business development at Staccato Communications, a start-up UWB company in early rounds of venture funding. “The data rates will be orders of magnitude faster with higher throughputs (than Bluetooth), but at a similar price and power consumption,” he continued. “In the consumer electronics space, we’ll see UWB connecting PDAs, cameras, MPEG 2 and DVD players. All of this may enable applications we aren’t even imagining, ” says Bowles says.
SUBHED: Achilles vs. Hector
The predictions for UWB growth are rosy given a business model that pre-supposes a wireless replacement for every USB and 1394 cable in North America. Shipments of UWB-enabled devices by 2009 could be as high as 315 million units, according to ABI Research, which is touting UWB as a disruptive technology. According to Kirsten West, an analyst and principal of West Technology Research Solutions, in Mountain View, Calif., UWB chipsets in the high data rate range (110 to 400+ Mbps could equal 11.1 million units in (2006, compound annual growth rate of 173%) while low data rate UWB chipsets for such applications as asset management and building security could equal 5.9 million units.
“The high data rate applications will be the USB cable replacement, which makes sense for smaller enterprises,” she says. “If you also put UWB into cell phones to add functionality, it allows high-speed connectivity. This enables the industry to [use a lower cost technology] to trend toward 3G and 4G capability. Down the line, if you replace cell towers with UWB towers and eliminate CDMA and TDMA along with 3G and 4G CDMA-type towers, the base stations will be much less expensive.”
In actuality, UWB is still commercially unproven and has several Achilles heels. First, the technology is locked in a standards battle pitting several behemoth electronics and silicon companies against each other. On one side is Motorola’s Freescale Semiconductor, which leads a battle to promulgate its own Direct Sequence (DS) UWB technology along with 40 other companies aligned under the industry group The UWB Forum. Freescale’s radio solution is generally recognized as an elegant, high data rate pulse transmission technology enabling simultaneous, multistream video and audio (e.g., MPEG 2). Developed by XtremeSpectrum in Vienna, Va., a company whose assets Motorola now owns, DS-UWB chipsets will first target the consumer electronics (CE) market. Freescale has issued an aggressive roadmap of development it says will result in chipsets of increasing speed—110, 220 and 480 Mbps, and ultimately 1 Gbps for high-end applications within the next three years.
“We’re targeting wireless, in-room audio-video distribution first, then handheld streaming applications (e.g., video camcorder connectivity to a media player), and then handheld content transfer (e.g., large file transfer from media players to storage devices, such as hard drives), which is really exciting,” says Freescale’s Rofheart. Claiming that “DS-UWB offers better performance both from a cost and power consumption perspective, as well as higher data rates” than competitive UWB technologies, Rofheart says Freescale has won regulatory acceptance.
Another advantage is Motorola’s jumpstart in the marketplace, having developed breadboards and real product, flexing its muscle with live demonstrations of Direct Sequence UWB MPEG 2 video at recent international shows (e.g., CeBIT and China Cable Broadcaster’s Networking Association). The company anticipates first product releases in late 2004 and 2005, and it plans three iterations of three different chipsets over the next nine months.
But watch out. The Multiband OFDM Alliance (MBOA), a competitive and newer industry group, is steamrolling ahead with 130 semiconductor, PC and consumer electronics companies on its side. Led by silicon giants Texas Instruments, Intel, Philips, Sony and Samsung, MBOA is promulgating a sophisticated, high-efficiency UWB specification called OFDM. With core signaling that provides the mainstay for ADSL and VDSL, M-OFDM offers a more processor-intensive vision of UWB connectivity than Freescale—and targets the wireless enterprise, observes Emergent Networks’ Jack Sullivan. “Intel has a vision that on the corner of every Pentium chip there will be a UWB or multicapability radio with Best Available Service,” he says. “This means that the radio will identify the networking environment and figure out which radio will provide the best service at any given point in time, given what the user wants to do.”
Although not yet finalized, the MBOA UWB spec has recently picked up important industry endorsements, including that of Wireless USB Forum and the WiMedia Alliance. WiMedia, in particular, says it will implement a certification and interoperability program for use by all the MBOA players to ensure compatibility between UWB radios and higher convergence protocols. In turn, MBOA engineers are designing new physical and media access control specifications to enhance the UWB offering for the high-performance enterprise wireless space.
“Intel is interested in this at a really high level, for mobile devices with silicon to exchange data quickly and conveniently,” says Ben Manny, a director of the radio communication lab at Intel Research & Development. “M-OFDM will be a good technology to replace the USB cables. USB-2, in particular, has a data rate of around 500 Mbps, which will popular for backups of hard drives even beyond video.”
Further, Manny argues, “Wireless USB Forum has endorsed multiband OFDM technology over Direct Sequence for several reasons: First, they believe the technology is better and more efficient. Next, OFDM’s efficiency is proven with modulation techniques with better power utilization per bit per foot. Another reason is that OFDM is used in a lot of other protocols such as 802.11a and WiMAX (a protocol for fixed wireless access used over long distance in rural areas). “Cellular carriers are interested in the OFDM approach; it’s used in DSL, and its modulation techniques are well understood. We’ve already demonstrated M-OFDM with a full-speed 480Mbps transmitter, and one of our members has announced the availability of UWB with CMOS technology. So, if you look at the companies behind this—TI and Intel and the 140 members—I think the numbers and credibility speak.”
At present, the IEEE, North America’s reigning standards body, is deadlocked over the competing UWB specifications. MBOA will need at least another nine months to a year to develop production-ready silicon, and both sides acknowledge that opposition has slowed down product commercialization.
Neither side is relenting, though. Each will play and develop to respective markets, and ultimately a de facto UWB standard will emerge. “It’s a race to the market to find a form factor, price and level of performance that [people] want to pay for. That amounts to a good old fashioned game of poker,” says Freescale’s Rofheart. “Everybody’s going to stay until the game is over. “
“One side will win,” predicts Emergent Network’s Jack Sullivan, “and everyone will have to fall in line to have their products interoperate. By that time, you’ll see UWB products throughout the marketplace. There’s no way this won’t become one of the largest wireless technology solutions in the next five years.”
Arielle Emmett is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.