RealTime IT News

UWB: It's Not Just for the U.S. Any More

This week in Tokyo, the first Wireless USB Developers Conference for the region took place, co-sponsored by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), the group that handles the specification for Universal Serial Bus in both its current wired and future wireless formats, and the WiMedia Alliance, the industry group promoting and developing use of Ultrawideband (UWB) spectrum for use in Certified Wireless USB (WiUSB) and other areas.

Japan was a good spot for the meeting, as the country's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications laid the initial groundwork in August to allow for UWB use in the country — the first outside of the United States.

The spectrum needed for use by UWB in Japan has not been officially allocated yet; it's only a proposal — but according to Roberto Aiello, secretary of the WiMedia Alliance's board of directors and founder of Staccato Communications, the country is "working with us to make sure the allocation they're going to allow will be compatible with the industry. The spectrum won't be exactly like in the U.S. It will require some product software modifications." But overall, he says, "we see this as a very positive step in the industry."

Similarly, the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) followed suit this month with a draft proposal for spectrum use for UWB. It will be reviewed in October.

In fact, WiMedia promoter member Wisair showed its "detect and avoid" UWB technology at a CEPT Electronic Communications Committee meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark last week — the kind of technique that might be needed for clearance for use in Japan.

WiMedia's Plans for WiUSB

Aiello stresses the use of WiMedia's UWB for cable replacement rather than for embedded features like video streaming, at least in the short term. The group is working not only with the USB-IF but also with the 1394 Trade Association (the group behind the high-speed connections better known as FireWire or iLink) and the Bluetooth Special Interest Group on wireless solutions.

As for how end users will get WiUSB, Aiello says, "First, we'll have little USB dongles, attached to the USB port on the PC to replace one end of the cable. The other end of the connection could be embedded, say in a printer, or from another box attached to the printer." Like 802.11 vs. Ethernet, he says WiUSB has to be optimized for wireless compared to regular USB 2.0 cables, with different protocols for use with antennas, etc.

Eventually, WiUSB will show up embedded in PCs and units like cameras, MP3 players, printers, etc. Operating systems will require WiUSB drivers just like they need USB 2.0 drivers today. The goal will be eventually to have all wireless peripherals connect to the WiMedia UWB stacks installed on a PC, whether the peripherals are Wireless USB, Wireless 1394, or Bluetooth.

Aiello believes the price point for WiUSB in equipment will start out low and go lower. He attributes this to the interoperability from all member companies. "It'll drive cost down quickly to get pervasive adoption," he says.

Intel  — a major WiMedia member — has opened a WiMedia UWB/Certified WiUSB Interoperability Lab for testing products. The company developed its own Wireless Host Controller Interface (WHCI) specification to support both, making sure WiUSB host controllers can talk with software driver stacks from multiple vendors currently developing WiUSB products. It won't be available until the first quarter of 2006, however.

The "So-Called" Competition

What does WiMedia think about the UWB Forum? Not much. Aiello doesn't even consider the consortium, lead by Freescale Semiconductor, as an industry group: "Freescale has a Web site, I wouldn't call it a group, to promote its technology," he says. "WiMedia is the standard recognized. UWB Forum promotes a proprietary technology that doesn't have the ecosystem of vendors to support it. I question the assumption that there are two industry groups [in UWB]."

He says that the only thing that the UWB Forum and WiMedia have in common is the use of UWB spectrum, pointing out that ultrawideband is about the spectrum — 7,500MHz of unlicensed spectrum from 3.1GHz to 10.6GHz, specifically —  not about a particular approach to a technology. "If we used 5GHz radio spectrum like 802.11a with a specific modulation, and so did Freescale, we probably wouldn't even be talking about them," he says.

The final goal is always the same, though: higher throughput over shorter distances. The issue will be in the marketing of the two groups' final products, and whether or not they create confusion for end users who expect them to interoperate.

Earlier this year, WiMedia (which originally was a neutral promoter of all things UWB, including Freescale's version) merged with the MultiBand OFDM Alliance Special Interest Group (MBOA-SIG). In March, the group got a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission to sell UWB products in the United States, and it recently said it would be working with Ecma International to promote its multiband orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (MB-OFDM) UWB technology as the global UWB standard.