An Early Version of Wireless USB

Freescale Semiconductor and Icron Technologies newly announced ExtremeUSB for Wireless will use ultrawideband (UWB) technology to deliver a wireless version of the universal serial bus (USB). However, this is a completely different form than what other vendors working with the USB-Implementers Forum (USB-IF) have been planning to do with UWB.

“We’re doing a straight port of USB 2.0 that is invisible to the application, to the chips, to the stack, and the drivers,” says Martin Rofheart, the director of UWB operations at Freescale. “The USB-IF has an architecture for a new specification that has a new chip, new stack, etcetera.”

The USB-IF has long planned for Wireless USB to be a high-speed wireless replacement to the cable connections, based on UWB. The 1.0 version was approved at the Wireless USB Conference in San Jose, Calif. last month.

ExtremeUSB will use UWB-based wireless running in hardware that plugs right into existing USB 2.0/Hi-Speed ports. 2.0 ports retain backward compatibility with the slower USB 1.1, which are still available on millions of computers today. In-Stat says the number of USB enabled devices expected by 2009 is 2.1 billion. In a white paper on the subject of Wireless USB, Icron calls it USB “the most successful interface in personal computing history.”

ExtremeUSB will debut in the form of dongles the size of a flash memory key that will plug into any USB port. With one ExtremeUSB module on each side of a connection, say, between a computer and its printer, or between the computer and a digital camera, the connection can be made wirelessly without needing additional software or drivers to enable the connection.

Freescale says the products will support the USB found on all operating systems: Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Unix and Solaris.

Icron holds the patent on the wired version of ExtremeUSB, which extends the range of typical USB connections from 16 feet to as far as 1.2 miles using Ethernet or fiber optic cable. They believe any wireless form of USB should retain the compatibility with the USB 2.0 standard (like being able to connect to a maximum of 127 devices) and have the same level of security. Icron is licensing the ExtremeUSB for Wireless intellectual property to Freescale for embedding into its chips on a non-exclusive basis.

Freescale demoed the ExtremeUSB with wireless using this week using its own XS110 chips. Rofheart says they don’t yet support the full data rate of USB 2.0, but that the next generation of silicon, the XS660 will make 660Mbps UWB possible at 20 meters—far and above the 480Mbps found today in wired USB 2.0. By then, he expects the technology will move into PCI Express cards, a new form factor of expansion card coming for laptops.

The USB-IF version of Wireless USB will work with the WiMedia Alliance’s version of ultrawideband. In May, WiMedia member Alereon showed a demo of that version of Wireless USB running at 480Mbps at a distance of 3 meters, dropping to 110Mbps at 10 meters.

The WiMedia Alliance merged with the Multiband-OFDM Alliance in March to push plans for that flavor of ultrawideband. They are countered by the UWB Forum’s UWB-Direct Sequence technology, which is backed by Motorola and Freescale. The separate groups caused a split last year in the IEEE 802.15.3a Task Group that was attempting to make a universal UWB specification. No end is in sight in the deadlock.

In May, Jeff Ravencraft, chairman of the Wireless USB Promoter Group said that the first Wireless USB products would be out late this year.

Rofheart says consumers should look for Freescale ExtremeUSB with Wireless products at trade shows in early 2006, and on store shelves not long after.

Also this week, Freescale demonstrated its chips running TV signals in equipment from Haier. Rofheart calls Haier the “fastest growing consumer electronics company on the planet.” The company’s uses UWB to broadcast HDTV signals from a media server to a 37-inch television on the other side of a stage. Haier plans to make the TV/server combo available to consumers in China this year, with plans to target the equipment at the United States in 2006.

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