UWB backers confident despite company closures

After two key players in the ultrawideband and wireless USB industry collapsed, the WiMedia Alliance has insisted the technology itself is not to blame

The group behind ultrawideband has claimed the short-range, high-bandwidth technology is progressing healthily, despite the collapse in the last week of two key players.

The WiMedia Alliance is an industry body dedicated to promoting the development of ultrawideband (UWB), which is the basis for emerging technologies such as wireless USB (WUSB), a proposed wireless successor to USB. One of the main WUSB chipset makers was the Texan firm WiQuest, but that company shut its doors on Friday.

On the same day, it emerged that Intel had quietly shut down its Ultrawideband Networking Operation, an in-house UWB development startup it had been funding.

As its name suggests, UWB uses a very wide band of frequencies to deliver theoretical transfer speeds of up to 480Mbps. It achieves this by using a range of frequencies that may already be in use by other technologies, but UWB's proponents claim its very short range will mitigate any interference issues.

Stephen Wood, who is both president of the WiMedia Alliance and an Intel technology strategist, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that venture-capital-funded WiQuest's undoing was based on two factors: the economy and a failure to make its technology work at the right frequencies. However, he insisted that the UWB market as a whole was following "natural evolutionary paths and forces".

"We're not seeing an indication of a weak market, but a combination of normal market evolution, exacerbated by poor economic conditions," Wood said. "We're in a very negative economic condition and that has made startups particularly vulnerable. WiQuest also had a technological failure with 6GHz, and that combination proved fatal. We always knew we'd experience attrition [in the UWB industry] and the economic conditions tend to accelerate attrition."

Wood explained that the ability to work at high frequencies — 6GHz is a particular milestone in the industry — was a necessary element in the evolution of UWB. Because high frequencies are not as crowded as the lower ones used by early UWB implementations, a UWB-based chipset using high frequencies is less likely to interfere with other nearby equipment. Therefore, regulatory authorities around the world are more likely to accept such a chipset, making it possible for chip manufacturers to achieve economies of scale and drive down the cost of UWB-based chipsets.

Higher frequencies also offer higher bandwidth, which is a key feature of wire-replacing technologies such as WUSB.

Wood said UWB-based chipsets would become cheaper and less power-hungry as they moved from their initial two-to-three-chip incarnations — which had cost around $15 (£9) each — to single-chip versions. "Today we have it down to about $8, but we're going to have to go down to $4-$5 as soon as possible in order to hit the sweet spot where the market lives," he said.

Steve Brightman, the marketing director for the WiMedia Alliance (like WiQuest, based in Texas), backed up Wood in blaming the economy, rather than UWB, for WiQuest's collapse. "We have a number of investment firms here in Dallas and the venture-capital [VC] community is not putting money into anything in this economic climate," he told ZDNet UK. "What I'm hearing from the VCs is not UWB-specific."

On the subject of Intel closing down its Ultrawideband Networking Operation, Brightman said that particular organisation had been only one of three such companies Intel had been funding to work on UWB (the other two are WisAir and Staccato). "After [such an Intel-funded company] runs its course, [Intel makes] a decision whether the technology needs to be sold off to another entity within Intel," he said. "In this case, I guess there was a make-versus-buy decision within Intel. Also, once they've kickstarted the technology, they feel a critical mass has been reached and they believe it can continue by itself."

"Just because one particular operation was closed down, that does not mean Intel has lost interest in UWB," Brightman said.

ZDNet UK has attempted to get comment from Intel itself on the closure of the Ultrawideband Networking Operation, but had not received a reply at the time of writing. Lenovo — the only laptop manufacturer that had announced plans to introduce WUSB-toting machines to the European market, but which planned to do so using WiQuest chipsets — had also not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.


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