Uncle Sam approves radical radio

America approves a revolutionary new way of wireless networking, but Europe remains reticent

The Federal Communications Commission, the American radio regulator, has approved the use of ultra-wideband (UWB) radio in the US. This radical new technology promises higher speeds and lower power consumption for wireless LANs, as well as cheap and revolutionary radar imaging systems, but has raised concerns about interference with existing services.

The FCC has approved the use of UWB for indoor-only or handheld, very low-power, links for consumers; a variety of surveillance, remote and medical imaging systems; and radars for collision avoidance, active suspension and airbag activation in cars. It has also limited the areas of the spectrum in which it can work, at least temporarily, until more is known of the way it interacts with normal radio.

Initial applications are expected to include very fast Bluetooth-style links for digital cameras, MP3 players and other high bandwidth devices, as well as wireless LANs operating at the same speeds as 802.11a, b and g but at lower power. European regulatory bodies are also looking at approving UWB, with the UK Radiocommunications Agency carrying out research along the same lines as the FCC. However, no date has been set for any European approval.

"It's far too soon to make any decision," said Bernard Bond, head of the RA's Low Power Section. "We're working with our colleagues in Europe to create a unified approach, and doing compatibility studies. A report is due in or around September 2002, and the direction Europe and the UK goes depends on the results."

Under development for more than a decade, UWB breaks with existing radio by not being based on channels or wavelengths. Instead of transmitting information on one or more carrier frequencies, as all systems have done since Marconi, it uses thousands of very low-power bursts of energy scattered all over the spectrum. The receiver monitors the entire spectrum, using knowledge of where and when each burst will arrive to detect each one as it arrives. By looking for reflected pulses arriving within certain time frames, the receiver can also spot objects some distance away; the wide bandwidth gives the signals very good penetrative abilities even at low power.

To other radios the signal is nearly undetectable as it appears to be low-level noise: thus, UWB can co-exist with current users and overlay existing frequency allocations without interference. However, the FCC has been worried that high levels of UWB use could increase noise levels in systems such as GPS satellite location services to the point at which errors occur -- this limited approval follows intensive research, consultation and testing.

Several companies in the US, including Time Domain and XtremeSpectrum, have been developing UWB systems, some of which have already been deployed with the US military, disaster relief agencies and covert users following a very limited licence from the FCC in 1998. These have included surveillance systems capable of seeing through walls and detecting human activity, as well as devices that can see through the ground to detect objects buried beneath. Laboratory demonstrations of systems capable of identifying gender and even vibrations in vocal cords at a distance have shown some of the potential of the new technology.

Networks and networking products have seen huge innovation and growth in the last few years. High bandwidth LANs and Storage Area Networks are now in common use. ZDNet UK's Networking Central keeps you up to date with the latest news and views.

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