RealTime IT News

Ultra Wideband: Gaining Momentum

While most regulatory decisions made by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) often take years to be felt in the consumer market, an FCC ruling made just 15 months ago may well result in new wireless electronic products parked under this year's Christmas tree. The most likely items will be camcorders that wirelessly stream video to a television set or computer hard drive.

And, to listen to the burgeoning ultra wideband (UWB) industry, that will be just the start. The industry and bullish analysts are predicting television sets that wirelessly send different programs to other television sets in the house, flat screen computer monitors that can be wirelessly tethered to a CPU located anywhere in the home, and wireless connections between VCRs and televisions to streamline that rat's nest of wires behind the home entertainment center.

UWB, on paper at least, seems to be ideal for consumer electronics applications such as camcorders, laptops, DVDs, and digital cameras to wirelessly communicate with each in a home environment. The wirelessly networked home, of course, has long been an elusive goal for consumer electronics companies.

Wireless transmission of video is seen as the key to making it become a reality.

Today's digital video transmissions use MPEG-2 for encoding and require up to 12 Mbps to broadcast the video. In addition, higher rate encoding standards such as HDTV and MPEG-2HD (High Definition) use higher rate transmissions in excess of 20 Mbps per video stream. Leading DVD companies have stated that they are moving to MPEG-2HD, underscoring the need for a wireless home technology that can deliver extremely high bandwidth for multiple channels of digital video transmission.

For the all the success of the various flavors of 802.11, the technology is inherently unsuitable for streaming video. 802.11a carries a data transfer rate of 54 Mbps and can reach roughly twice that speed using proprietary 'turbo' architectures. In theory, 802.11a has a hypothetically greater range than UWB.

However, as an Ethernet derivative designed as a packet based data networking protocol, it is unsuitable for intensive multi-media applications since it depends on data packets arriving in order and in time.

XtremeSpectrum, a Vienna, Va.-based UWB firm, is predicting that its products will have a range of 30 feet with data rates around 100 Mbps. Chip making giant Intel has a goal of 500 Mbps.

Another fundamental flaw in 802.11a technology for video streaming is that its power consumption requirements of around 1.5 to 2 W makes it almost completely unsuitable for battery dependent devices like PDAs, and even many laptops with short battery lives.

And then there is the question of cost. Currently, consumer NIC cards for 802.11a are roughly $150 to $200, which could be too high for broad consumer adoption. XtremeSpectrum has a chip set that is approximately $20 per 100,000 units.

The February 2002 FCC decision that unleashed the happy dogs of optimism was a ruling authorizing the commercial, unlicensed deployment of UWB. The FCC had been attempting since 1998 to a find a way to approve and promote UWB technology because of the potential commercial applications.

However, the agency had to fight the concerns of military, aviation, fire, police and rescue officials that interference from UWB devices could potentially disrupt critical public services and crucial military operations. UWB also presented a novel regulatory issue for the FCC because time pulse technology does not displace existing frequency users but, instead, overlays wide swaths of existing spectrum.

In its February ruling, the FCC decreed that UWB devices must operate in the frequency band 3.1-10.6 GHz. It also said the equipment must be designed to ensure that operation can only occur indoors or it must consist of hand-held devices that may be employed for such activities as peer-to-peer operation.

The FCC ostensibly passed the rule for UWB's "significant" public safety benefits, pointing out the technology's ability to power radar imaging of objects buried under the ground or behind walls, providing rescue workers at catastrophic disaster sites with a valuable, lifesaving tool. UWB also may lead to breakthroughs in medical imaging and also has wired potential as well.

But it was the commercial potential of the technology that set off a flurry of activity that has UWB's proponents predicting a boom in UWB-driven home networking products. Intel, Cisco, and Motorola have all said they will all have UWB market products by late this year.

In July 2002, Xtremespectrum attracted a $12 million investment round that included participation from Texas Instruments. Just last month, San Diego-based Staccato Communications, secured $7.5 million in Series A funding from Bay Partners, Charles River Ventures and Allegis Capital.

Staccato has built a CMOS silicon prototype of a new architecture for UWB that it says is both compliant with the FCC's regulations and enables high bit-rate UWB in CMOS for the first time.

"The venture capital community has been watching the UWB space for years waiting for the right timing for investment," Dino Vendetti, a general partner with Bay Partners, told In September of last year, the FCC announced it had awarded a Grant of Equipment Authorization to Huntsville, Ala.-based Time Domain certifying that the company's radio communications device meets the Commission's UWB regulations for sale in the U.S., making it first UWB communications product to pass the FCC's certification procedure.

Certification paves the way for a more extensive roll out of Time Domain's UWB silicon-based products. The product certified is one in a series of hardware components based on the company's patented PulsON 200 chipset. It will be available to customers as part of the PulsON 200 Evaluation Kit (EVK), a product development platform that supports the full range of UWB capabilities, including wireless communications, tracking, and radar.

"Our commercial and government customers want to explore the many potential applications of UWB, ranging from high-speed communications to precision tracking to through-wall imaging," said James R. Baker, EVP for Time Domain's commercial products. "From this collaboration we expect to see demand escalate for application-specific chipsets, like our PulsON 300 which is being developed to achieve the very high bandwidth and low power consumption required for wireless multimedia applications."

To celebrate the first anniversary of the FCC's UWB rule, the agency in February held an Ultra Wideband showcase at its headquarters in Washington.

XtremeSpectrum demonstrated a wireless broadcast of two high definition HDTV streams to two separate large screen displays using the company's UWB Trinity chipset. The multiple streams of video offered "wire-like" performance while co-existing with an 802.11b/a system, a microwave oven, a cellular/PCS phone and a cordless phone-all in simultaneous operation during this demonstration.

Time Domain showcased its RadarVision, which allows users to detect the movement of people behind walls. The hand-held unit incorporates Time Domain's PulsON chipset technology, which the firm said provides a new level of situational intelligence and awareness for law enforcement and public safety personnel.

Also participating in the show was Germantown, Md.-based Multispectral Solutions, which rolled a UWB intercommunications system it has developed for the U.S. Navy to reduce accidents and injuries by eliminating on-board cabling, providing flight crews with unrestricted movement throughout the aircraft cabin.

In addition, the company previewed a digital wireless audio system designed for CD-quality, wireless speaker and headphone applications.

Despite all the activity in the UWB field in the last year, the question still lingers if UWB the Next Big Thing or just the latest Most Hyped Thing? The answer is an unequivocal maybe.

The ultimate success of UWB rests in the hands of the industry itself. The first challenge to overcome is agreeing upon a universal standard wireless network interface that can coexist with existing spectrum users. Already, there are competing visions of the technological standard needed to accomplish this goal.

In November 2001, it was agreed that a new study group would be formed to identify an alternative transmission technology, or physical layer, for an emerging higher data rate WPAN standard (802.15.3a). In March, proposals submitted for the IEEE 802.15.3a standard were presented and reviewed at the IEEE 802.15.3a Task Group meeting.

Of the 23 proposals presented, 16 were based on a multi-band approach. Its proponents believe that the 7.5 GHz of spectrum allotted for UWB by the FCC should be divided into smaller bands of 500 MHz to 700 MHz that can be added and dropped based on interference from other systems.

The UWB Multi-Band Coalition, which is comprised of 14 companies, including Intel, Philips, Mitsubishi and General Atomics, is currently working to merge the various proposals into one. The Coalition says that this approach is more flexible and scaleable than one based on a single band, and also ensures coexistence with other systems operating in its range, such as 802.11a.

At the same meeting, though, Motorola's Semiconductor Products Sector announced that they are supporting the XtremeSpectrum proposal for the IEEEP802.15.3a alternate physical layer (PHY) standard.

"Our relationship with Motorola SPS underscores our commitment to deploy ultra-wideband technology on a wide scale to both consumer electronics OEMs and semiconductor partners," said Martin Rofheart, CEO of XtremeSpectrum. "And, with Motorola's support on our PHY proposal to the IEEE, we are taking the first steps toward creating a horizontal market for UWB that will ultimately benefit consumers around the world."

This week in Dallas, Motorola and Xtreme jointly presented a proposal to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.15 Working Group for Wireless Personal Area Networks that advocates a dual-band, direct sequence code division multiple access (CDMA) approach for the standard.

Chris Fisher, Xtremespectrum's VP of marketing, said, "There is a fundamental physics benefit that comes from wideband radio transmission vs. narrowband. We can provide wire-like transmissions with wideband. If we narrow up the bandwidth, we lose that."

Fisher also said the standard must allow a home network to support many users while being able to provide high data rates to each of them. He contended that with multi-band, there is a tradeoff of data rate vs. number of users.

"The problem with the multi-band 'frequency hopping' approach is you can't hop to the next frequency until the wave you launched in the initial frequency has settled down," Fisher said. "It limits the rate at which you can move to next channel and limits the amount of data you can push through at any time."

Which standard will emerge is still in question and it's not expected that there will be agreement before the end of the year.

"It might be a little too early to tell if this is a Betamax-VHS debate," said David Hoover, an analyst who tracks ultra wideband for the Precursor Group, an investor side research firm in Washington, D.C.

The debate, though, is sure to determine the future of UWB and who will emerge as the winners and losers.