The High Spark of Low Power


In February, the Federal Communications Commission
authorized the commercial deployment
of a new wireless technology that can
transmit data, voice and video over short distances with more flexibility than
other radio frequencies. Known as ultra wideband (UWB), the FCC said the
technology holds “great promise for a vast array of new applications.”


The agency somberly noted that UWB promises “significant benefits” for public
safety, pointing out the technology’s ability to power radar imaging of
objects buried under the ground or behind walls, providing a rescue workers at
catastrophic disasater sites with a valuable, lifesaving tool. UWB also may
lead to breakthroughs in medical imaging and also has wired potential as
well.


And, oh yes, the FCC also noted ultra wideband’s potential for short-range,
high-speed data transmissions. Despite the public safety or medical imaging
aspects of UWB, it has been this last category of wireless broadband
transmission — fully capable of supporting broadcast quality video — that
has set off a flurry of commercial activity that has UWB’s proponents
predicting a boom in UWB-driven home networking products that will find
themselves under next year’s Christmas tree.


Unlike conventional wireless radio systems that operate within a relatively
narrow bandwidth (i.e. Bluetooth, IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11a) ultra wideband
operates across a wide range of frequency spectrum by transmitting a series of
very narrow and low power pulses. The UWB industry says this combination of
broader spectrum, lower power and pulsed data means that ultra wideband causes
less interference than conventional narrowband radio solutions.


Ideal for Multimedia?
In more practical terms, ultra wideband technology, 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.


According to the Consumer Electronics Association of America, DVD equipment
sales for North America are forecasted to reach approximately 17 million units
in 2003, representing a significant market opportunity for wireless
connectivity solutions.


“Companies are definitely ramping up for a Christmas 2003 major rollout,” said
David Hoover, an analyst who tracks ultra wideband for the
Precursor Group
, an independent, investor side research firm in
Washington, D.C. “It’s a lot easier to stream audio and video with UWB. The
consumer electronics market is what we believe will be the first niche market
for UWB.”


The Players
Indeed, since the February FCC ruling freeing spectrum for the commercial use
of UWB, Intel, Cisco, and Motorola have all said they will enter the UWB
market with products in late 2003.


Huntsville, Ala.-based Time Domain
Corp.
, one of the earliest players in the ultra wideband field with U.S.
West as a minority partner, announced in June it was expanding the company’s
semiconductor design capabilities with the opening of a new design center in
Nevada City, Calif. The company is working on its third-generation chipset,
which is targeted to deliver hundreds of megabits per second throughput for
multimedia traffic.


In July, XtremeSpectrum, a
Northern Virginia UWB developer that attracted a $12 million investment round
in June and counts Texas Instruments among its investors , demonstrated the
“extreme bandwidth” and “wire-like” video quality of its new Trinity chipset.


Using the popular MPEG2 video format, XtremeSpectrum broadcast six video
streams to six separate flat panel displays simultaneously across the room
using a single ultra wideband connection. According to the company, the
streaming video, enabled by the Trinity chipset, offered “true wire-like”
performance while co-existing with an 802.11b system, a microwave oven, a
cellular/PCS phone and a cordless phone, all in simultaneous operation.


“With six simultaneous streams of video, this demonstration is intended to
showcase not only the high performance capabilities of our ultra-wideband
product, but Trinitys ability to co-exist with systems and products in the
popular 2.4 GHz and PCS/cellular ranges found in most homes today,” said
Martin Rofheart, XtremeSpectrum’s CEO. “And, not only does Trinity co-exist
with these various technologies, but the video remains unperturbed despite
moving people, furniture and walls, all of which are factors in a typical
residential scenario. Based on this demonstration, we believe ultra wideband
will become the pervasive wireless technology for consumer connectivity
applications.”


XtremeSpectrum officials and other UWB proponents are predicting television
sets that wirelessly send different programs to other television sets in the
house, camcorders that wirelessly connect with monitors and portable, flat
screen computer monitors that can be wirelessly tethered to a CPU located
anywhere in the home, not mention to wireless connections between VCRs and
televisions to streamline that rat’s nest of wires behind the home
entertainment center.


With existing FCC restrictions in place, XtremeSpectrum is predicting that its
products will have a range of 30 feet with data rates around 100 Mbps with no
drop off. Intel’s director of wireless technology, Ben Manny, says his company
has a goal of 500 Mbps.


“One of the major consumer opportunities is solving the problem of wireless
digital video and audio distribution within the home. Consumers want it,
consumer electronics OEMs want to provide it and now, with emerging
technologies, wireless companies are ready to deliver it. Indeed, by adding
wireless to everything from TVs to home theater gear to set-top boxes, this
vision can become reality,” Rofheart said earlier this summer.


Powering Up Low Power
The FCC has 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 to 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 standards adopted today represent a cautious first step with UWB
technology. These standards are based in large measure on standards that the
National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) believes are
necessary to protect against interference to vital federal government
operations,” read an FCC statement issued in February. “Since there is no
production UWB equipment available and there is little operational experience
with the impact of UWB on other radio services, the Commission chose in this
First Report and Order to err on the side of conservatism in setting emission
limits when there were unresolved interference issues.”


The FCC said it intends within the next 6-12 months to review the standards
for UWB devices and issue a further notice of proposed rule making to explore
more flexible standards and address the operation of additional types of UWB
operations and technology.


That “cautious” first step by the FCC brought a finger-pointing,
table-thumping lecture from Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), a strong supporter of
UWB technology, at a
June House hearing
convened to deal with the potential ultra wideband
interference issues raised by the NTIA.


Tauzin cited a 1989 ruling by the FCC that opened the door for widespread use
of cell phones and other wireless devices including PDAs and laptops. At the
time, the NTIA, the military and other agencies contended the use of these
devices could interfere with applications already running in the spectrum,
fears that the FCC ignored and were ultimately proved to be unfounded.


“In 1989, the FCC told the NTIA to prove it and not deal in imagined
problems,” Tauzin said. “Sound spectrum management involves a balancing of
governmental and non-governmental interests. While balancing these interests
always involves policy issues, good spectrum management requires that sound
policy be supported by sound engineering. I don’t think that necessarily
happened this time.”


Tauzin then specifically asked Julius P. Knapp, deputy chief, Office of
Engineering and Technology at the FCC, and Michael Gallagher, deputy assistant
secretary of the NTIA if “there is any evidence of interference” from UWB
devices. Both replied no, but contended there are not currently enough UWB
devices operating to empirically prove the point.


“It’s really no more than background noise — it’s under the radar and it is
inherently more secure,” said Precursor analyst Hoover.


Another analyst said UWB technology allows an “unprecedented amount of
high-density bandwidth applications” without requiring assignment of a new
frequency bandwidth, essentially “creating” a new band of spectrum in the
noise floor.

Whither 802.11x?
So what happens to 802.11x if ultra wideband technology becomes the de facto
home networking standard?


“If you ask the (UWB) industry guys if ultra wideband is a potential threat to
802.11, they will all say absolutely not,” a wireless analyst who asked not to
be identified told Internetnews.com.
“They are not looking to take on fights but, yes, UWB, because of its inherent
advantage in streaming video, is a threat to 802.11.”


Chris Fisher, vice president of marketing for XtremeSpectrum, disagrees. Prior
to joining XtremeSpectrum, Fisher worked for Radiata, a developer of IEEE
802.11a technology that was acquired by Cisco Systems in 2001.


“802.11a is going to be hugely successful for data networking, but it was
never designed to support video streaming,” Fisher said.


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.


“Our customer base (consumer electronics manufacturers) made their own
internal evaluations. They looked at 802.11 and Bluetooth and decided they
were not adequate for the transmission of wire-like video,” said Fisher, who
sees a future for 802.11x in demanding enterprise or public access markets.


Another fundamental flaw in 802.11a technology is that it’s 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’s chip set is approximately $20 per 100,000 units.


Further bolstering the hopes of both the nascent UWB industry and 802.11x
supporters is a June market research
report
by InStat/MDR analyst Gemma Paulo predicting that UWB will
gradually grow its marketshare in the home market, with the first UWB devices
unveiled at next January’s Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, followed by
shipping products by Christmas season 2003.


According to Paulo these initial product shipments won’t gain market momentum
until 2004 and beyond, but Paulo is conservative about UWB’s share of the
total wireless home market, anticipating that UWB won’t comprise more than 5
percent of the total shipments through 2006. Until that time, 802.11x should
be the dominant home wireless technology.

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