Ultra Wideband gets a boost at Intel show

An emerging wireless technology, called Ultra Wideband, may be getting off the launchpad faster than expected, thanks to several announcements at the Intel Developer Forum.

One big UWB industry group has re-organized more formally as a Special Interest Group dedicated to crafting what it hopes will become the industry standard specification for UWB. Meanwhile, the Wireless USB Promoter Group has just been formed and will use that spec as the basis for recasting the widely used Universal Serial Bus (USB) interface, linking PCs and peripherals, as a 480M bits/sec wireless connection.

Finally, one UWB vendor, Staccato Communications Inc., announced it is shipping a wireless USB development kit, a set of components that plug into a PC for software development of wireless USB applications. Staccato also revealed its partnering with NEC to design and build wireless USB chipsets.

Conventional radios send out a single, continuous carrier wave over a specified frequency. By contrast, UWB sends out very short, fast low-power pulses of energy and spreads them over a wide swath of frequencies using well-known modulation techniques such as orthogonal frequency division modulation (OFDM) or direct sequencing. These two different techniques are the basis of two rival UWB proposals being considered by the IEEE. One is by the MultiBand OFDM Alliance and the other is by a group led by Motorola.

The IEEE 802.15.3a Task Group (TG3a) is charged with crafting a high-speed, physical-layer standard for so-called personal-area networks with a range of about 30 feet.

TG3a has been deadlocked over the debate, unable to coalesce enough votes behind the MBOA proposal to move forward with the standard. Unwilling to delay, MBOA members adopted the SIG structure to accelerate their work on what theMy hope will become the de facto UWB standard. The first version of the specification will be published in May. Products are expected in early-to-mid 2005.

"As work progressed, it has become obvious that a more formal structure is needed, simply for issues like intellectual property development, rules and procedures on decision making, etc.," says Mark Fidler, senior engineer scientist with HP's imaging and printing systems group, and an MBOA participant, in an e-email interview.

The SIG's activities won't slow up the process of getting a standard to market, according to Fidler.

"I think it gives a clear path for a specification to be developed, and also a forum for device and silicon producers to come together to express needs, wants, desires, etc.," he wrote. "The MBOA has every intention of of sticking with the current IEEE task group, and the MBOA has also made a commitment to the leaders of the IEEE to bring any relevant specifications back to the IEEE for incorporation into an IEEE specification. I believe, as others do, that this (creation of the SIG) could actually accelerate the process."

That seems to be born out by the newly created Wireless USB Promoter Group, which includes Agere Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., NEC Corp. and others. The group has already started defining a wireless implementation of the USB 2.0 interconnect, based in part on the work of the MBOA, and on the WiMedia Alliance, which is defining a specification for streaming media over UWB links.

In a statement, the group said it will preserve the existing USB device and class driver infrastructure and investment, as well as the "look and feel" and ease of use of the wired USB specification.

In a January interview with Network World, Stephen Wood, who oversees UWB strategy for Intel's communications laboratories, described Intel's conviction that cellular, PC, handheld technologies are converging. UWB, he said, becomes the means to bring an array of data streams into the PC and to share this data with other devices. "We'll see this convergence, this interaction among devices via this personal area network functionality," he said.

Staccato's new SC1030D development platform will let USB developers work with draft elements of the MBOA standard. It includes the company's Multiband OFDM physical layer (PHY) transceiver, and its media access control (MAC) layer board.

"For prototyping and early development, we're providing the first actual (UWB) stack," says Mark Bowles, vice president of marketing for Staccato, San Diego, Calif.

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