March 21, 2005, 9:19 AM — Within the next two years, we should start to see fast wireless links based on ultrawideband (UWB) taking the place of short-range connections such as USB and Firewire, and providing fast data links between consumer goods. Chipmakers are now on the verge of creating the silicon, and vendor groups are completing the standards.
But the technology may have trouble getting a world market, as regulators wrestle with the objections of the cellphone industry. UWB standards are in deadlock at the IEEE; but what the regulators say matters far more to the future of the technology.
At the Ultrawideband Europe conference in London last week, a select group of vendors and regulators made the issues quite clear.
UWB crosses boundaries
In a nutshell, UWB has problems because it is hard to pigeon hole. The technology operates at low energies, across a wide radio spectrum - and also crosses boundaries between markets. Some applications look very IT-centric (get rid of all your UWB cables, synchronise large data files), and some look intensely consumer-centric (move video streams between rooms in your home).
UWB's issues, with regulators, standards bodies, and vendor groups, are simply because it is so difficult to pin down - because it is so new.
Technologies will compete
It's tempting to think that the vendor deadlock could be resolved by allowing several standards. The two factions competing in the IEEE seem to address different applications - the Intel-backed WiMedia group is pitching at the IT world, with a replacement for USB and Firewwire (and has published its PHY layer independently), and the Motorola-backed Freescale proposal is aiming for home entertainment centres.
"Both technologies have moved forward, and are further apart now," said Steven Moore, director of intellectual property at Pulse-Link, a UWB start-up which recently started a third proposal, CWave, outside the IEEE. Moore reckons that the technologies started competing, but are now addressing applications far enough apart that the IEEE could define two standards (or three if you count CWave).
WiMedia disagrees: "The markets they are aiming at are converging," said Stephen Wood of Intel, also president of the WiMedia Alliance. Consumers want to move MP3 files around, and businesses want to ship Powerpoints, he says: "If we create standards that segment office and consumer products, they user will not be pleased. They want to share content."
"What will dictate this is the economies of scale," he said. Users don't want to have different standards to move data wirelessly, any more than they want different - and more expensive - formats of CD and DVD for their office data. WiMedia is already being looked at by several consumer phone companies added Wood, so the consumer/business division is already being blurred.