Don't give ultrawideband a narrow role

A good old-fashioned standards battle is underway for the soul of ultrawideband radio, but the opposing camps may be missing the point

Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a peaceable place, best known for its balloon festival and a mention in Prefab Sprout's one hit, The King Of Rock 'N' Roll. That will change next month as the IEEE 802.15.3a committee brings 300 engineers and a major turf war into town for the latest in a series of meetings designed to standardise ultrawideband (UWB).

At least, that's what it looks like. For industry veterans, it all seems remarkably familiar: two standards, both alike in capability, are locked in bitter dispute. On one side, the massed armies of Intel, Texas Instruments, Microsoft and -- one suspects -- Nokia; on the other, the smaller yet equally feisty corps of Motorola and XTremeSpectrum. The first group, called the Multiband OFDM Alliance or MBOA, has had the majority of votes for the past couple of meetings -- just not enough to reach the 75 percent majority needed.

Meanwhile, the Motorola group -- holding steady at around 40 percent of the vote -- has kept raising questions about technical aspects of the MBOA proposal, most notably that the OFDM system may not be able to meet the strict limits on power and frequency that the American rules for UWB mandate. Several MBOA members say that this just ain't so, and that they've already tested OFDM chips that fully comply. Doubtless that will be fully explored in the meeting.

The stakes are high. UWB is seen as the next big market for wireless networking: using next to no power, it promises at least 110 megabits per second connectivity over a distance of ten metres without interfering with existing radio systems. The 802.15.3a group is part of the IEEE standards process for personal area networks -- PANs -- and nobody's denying that UWB is a perfect fit for a technology that needs to route high definition video and audio signals on desktops, in personal gadgets and in the domestic front room.

But something's been lost in the fog of war. Back in the early days of UWB, the standard was being promoted as all that and much more besides. Not only can the technology do very high data rates over short distances with power levels so low you don't know its there, but it can manage respectable rates over much longer distances, again with much greater efficiencies than existing wireless LANs. It's also very good at radar: some of the earliest applications were through-the-wall detection of objects, and it's been used to find victims buried in collapsed buildings.

All that seems to have been forgotten. It's instructive to compare Intel's earliest public statements about UWB with its current stance. I was at the first Intel Developer Forum where the company demonstrated its UWB work and although the company was clearly focusing on PANs, there was much discussion about how to make sure the standardisation process didn't exclude alternative uses. At the latest IDF, that was missing: PAN was it.

It's easy to see why. No matter what market predictions you plug into the spreadsheet, the PAN market for UWB means big dollars fast. UWB has the promise of removing every cable except power from every device, and that means at least one chip in every video recorder, DVD player, TV set, mobile phone, even remote controls and washing machines. No, they don't need a multi-megabit radio link, but if that's the cheapest, lowest power way into the home network then why not?

One company, Pulse-Link, has been quietly promoting the alternative uses of UWB. It has already demonstrated a non-standard wireless LAN using the technology, which outperforms 802.11a/g for both speed and range, and has a 1Gbps cable data modem that overlays existing signals without degrading them. Its contribution to the 802.15.3a cause is a proposal whereby different UWB radios built to different standards can communicate with each other and arrange to keep out of each other's way. It's a step towards ensuring coexistence is possible between very different UWB systems -- and a move away from a world so full of Mk 1 UWB devices that newer, better ideas can't get a word in edgeways.

This is the sort of thinking that should dominate the 802.15.3a discussions. Most companies active in the UWB arena I've talked to have said that frankly, they don't care which group wins, as long as there's a standard -- and soon. It may be that sheer frustration drives the process to a conclusion at Albuquerque, with the usual mix of political compromise, intellectual property swaps and -- oh, yeah, nearly forgot -- getting the tech good enough.

But whichever side wins, it would be criminal if in the heat of the moment the companies concerned forgot that this is just the beginning of a brand new technology, with potential that reaches as far beyond replacing video leads as today's radio systems outpace Marconi's ship-to-shore wireless telegraph.