IDF - Ultra-wide band teams to battle it out

Backers of two different types of ultra-wide band (UWB) networks will next week announce moves toward consumer products that use...

Backers of two different types of ultra-wide band (UWB) networks will next week announce moves toward consumer products that use the short-range wireless technology.

The Multiband OFDM Alliance (MBOA) has formalised a special interest group, which will complete a UWB specification and make it available to member companies at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, original design manufacturers using UWB chips from Motorola subsidiary Freescale Semiconductor, which use the direct sequence technology, will unveil modules complete with radios and software for consumer electronics and computing products.

UWB is intended for very high-speed wireless connections over 30ft (9m) or less that could link home entertainment devices or take the place of USB cables.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has a task group to set a standard for the technology, which would be called IEEE 802.15.3a, but members of that group are split between MBOA's approach and the "direct sequence" technology backed by Motorola and other suppliers.

The MBOA, a group of more than 160 member companies that support a UWB technology using Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM), said its special interest group will complete a pair of UWB specifications and make them available to members, said Roberto Aiello, an MBOA board member and chief executive officer of UWB supplier Staccato Communications.

Leading MBOA members include Intel, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, Sony  and UWB-specific suppliers such as Staccato and Alereon.

The special interest group needs formal rules and legal status to manage the specifications because of issues such as intellectual property rights, said Jim Meyer, vice-president of business development at Alereon.

The specifications should be finished by the end of the year, with chips out in volume in mid-2005 and consumer products shipping by Christmas 2005, Aiello said.

In addition to finishing and promoting the OFDM specification, the group will work with other standards bodies to align its technology with other layers of software to ensure that complete systems work well, Aiello said.

These include the Wireless USB Promoters Group, the WiMedia Alliance and the 1394 Trade Association. The Wireless USB Promoters Group has endorsed MBOA's specification exclusively, Aiello said. The WiMedia Alliance was formed to define and promote specifications for personal area networks, and the 1394 Trade Association was organised to support the IEEE 1394 multimedia connection standard.

MBOA's physical layer specification for UWB is complete, but details are still being worked out on the media access control layer, which should be signed off by the end of this year, according to Aiello. The group already has equipment in the lab delivering USB 2.0 throughput at its full 480mbps speed, he said.

Formalising the special interest group is the latest step by MBOA to move its technology forward rather than wait for the IEEE task group to settle on a standard, Aiello said.

"We would like to see the IEEE adopt our specification, but I don't know if or when it's going to happen," he said. "Virtually the whole industry is working on the MBOA specification, and this guarantees interoperability and multiple vendors and lower cost for consumers. This is not a technical issue. This is just an economic issue," he said.

An executive of Freescale, which itself is moving ahead with direct sequence UWB, questioned that outlook.

Freescale's first-generation XtremeSpectrum UWB chipset began shipping in volume this month, and the introduction next week of modules from manufacturers will bring the technology one step away from consumer products, said Martin Rofheart, director of UWB operations at Freescale.

The direct-sequence camp is focusing on very short ranges, with Freescale offering 110mbps over 10m in its first generation of chips. By the end of next year, it should offer sample chips that will deliver 1gbps over 10m, Rofheart said.

Replacing USB is a key application for Freescale as well, he said. Direct-sequence suppliers, joined under the UWB Forum, will not form a special interest group but will turn to the IEEE or another independent body to manage the direct-sequence UWB specification.

Bickering between the two groups is holding back the technology's adoption, according to one industry analyst.

"There's been a lot of posturing and positioning that is unnecessary," Craig Mathias, founder of Farpoint Group. "It's very important that both sides get to a single standard."

MBOA's latest move is a step in the opposite direction, he said.

Though the two technologies are unlikely ever to interoperate, they could be brought together into a single standard with two modes, similar to the way IEEE 802.11 wireless Lan standards evolved, Mathias said. That could foster lower costs through higher volume chip production.

Bob Heile, chairman of the IEEE 802.15 standards group, which oversees the UWB task group and others, has been encouraging a single standard with multiple modes, but he is not very worried about the deadlock. Only the US allows the use of UWB so far, so it should serve as a test market, he said. 

"You've got to get some real stuff out there and see how it works. It's not really important that we have a single solution now. Diversity is a good thing now," he said.

Global adoption is likely to happen in three to four years, after the US experience teaches important lessons about demand and interference, according to Heile. But a standard would establish an independent body to certify that suppliers were implementing each form of the technology correctly, he added.

Freescale's Rofheart agreed that the IEEE should allow two modes under one standard and let the market work out which it wants. Meyer, at Alereon, thinks the market benefits from the current situation.

"It is better to have two completely dissimilar solutions, because one of them has to exit the market, and the sooner that happens, the better for everyone. You'll shorten the period of confusion, which could potentially dampen the demand," Meyer said.

Rofheart said market competition will knock one technology out of contention and expressed confidence that direct sequence is far ahead of the MBOA suppliers.

"You've got to enter the market before you can exit it," Rofheart said.

Stephen Lawson writes for IDG News Service

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