Intel Backs UWB for Wireless USB

In an effort to eliminate the tangle of cables connecting PCs and peripherals, Intel on Wednesday unveiled plans to develop a wireless USB protocol based on ultrawideband (UWB) technology.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaking giant, along with six other tech heavyweights, has formed a new industry association called the Wireless USB Promoter Group that will define a specification to allow high-speed wireless connections between computers and devices such as printers, scanners and digital cameras. The other members of the group are Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, Philips Semiconductors, Agere Systems and Samsung Electronics.

The Wireless USB (WUSB) spec will be based on the UWB standard that’s being hammered out by the Multiband OFDM Alliance (MBOA), of which Intel is also a member. That group announced last month that it would form a special interest group and publish its UWB standard in May. Work on a UWB standard within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has been stalled since last summer.

Intel said the new WUSB would deliver the same speeds as USB 2.0 — 480Mbps — over distances up to 10 meters, and would preserve existing USB infrastructure. The group plans to deliver the 1.0 version of the specification by the end of 2004, with the first products expected about a year later. Early products are likely to be in the form of add-in cards and dongles, with embedded chips to follow.

The company demonstrated wireless USB in action this week at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. The demo, which used two UWB prototype radios, showed two types of wireless transfers: a live video stream and a data file transfer from a USB hard drive.

In a separate announcement Wednesday, Intel and fellow MBOA member Texas Instruments confirmed that they have joined the board of directors of the WiMedia Alliance, the group expected to eventually certify UWB products. As part of the WUSB initiative, WiMedia will develop a “common abstraction layer for the UWB radio platform” that will allow multiple applications to share a single radio. Specific applications, such as WUSB or wireless 1394 (FireWire), would run on top of the layer.

This so-called convergence layer acts like “a traffic cop,” explained Ben Manny, who directs the Radio Communications Lab for Intel Corporate Research and Development. “It sits on top of the media access control (MAC) … [and] allows equal access to the common radio below it for the application stacks that sit above it.”

A number of organizations, including the 1394 Trade Association and the Digital Home Working Group, have expressed interest in a wireless cable replacement technology, Manny said, and this layer would help to create a seamless operation between products.

Meanwhile, the MBOA will expand its scope as well. In addition to its work on a UWB physical layer (PHY), the group will also create a MAC specification. Manny noted that the existing 802.15.3 MAC was designed for a much different type of PHY. He said the new MAC will have the same basic goals, including quality of service, but will be optimized for the MBOA PHY.

In related news, MBOA member Staccato Communications has announced a joint agreement with NEC to develop wireless USB silicon based on the new protocol. The San Diego-based startup also unveiled a WUSB development platform. The SC1030D combines a UWB transceiver with a MAC PCI board; both can be upgraded to the final MBOA specification when it is complete. Staccato said the platform is available now to select customers, with wide availability expected in the second quarter.

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