The High Spark of Low Power

By Roy Mark

August 02, 2002

FEATURE: Six months ago, the FCC freed spectrum for the commercial use of ultra wideband, touting the public safety aspects of the technology, but it's a shot at becoming the de facto standard for wireless home networks that's driving the nascent UWB industry and raising questions about 802.11's future.

In February, the Federal Communications Commission authorized the commercial deployment of a new wireless technology that can transmit data, voice and video over short distances with more flexibility than other radio frequencies. Known as ultra wideband (UWB), the FCC said the technology holds "great promise for a vast array of new applications."

The agency somberly noted that UWB promises "significant benefits" for public safety, pointing out the technology's ability to power radar imaging of objects buried under the ground or behind walls, providing a rescue workers at catastrophic disasater sites with a valuable, lifesaving tool. UWB also may lead to breakthroughs in medical imaging and also has wired potential as well.

And, oh yes, the FCC also noted ultra wideband's potential for short-range, high-speed data transmissions. Despite the public safety or medical imaging aspects of UWB, it has been this last category of wireless broadband transmission -- fully capable of supporting broadcast quality video -- that has set off a flurry of commercial activity that has UWB's proponents predicting a boom in UWB-driven home networking products that will find themselves under next year's Christmas tree.

Unlike conventional wireless radio systems that operate within a relatively narrow bandwidth (i.e. Bluetooth, IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11a) ultra wideband operates across a wide range of frequency spectrum by transmitting a series of very narrow and low power pulses. The UWB industry says this combination of broader spectrum, lower power and pulsed data means that ultra wideband causes less interference than conventional narrowband radio solutions.

Ideal for Multimedia?
In more practical terms, ultra wideband technology, on paper at least, seems to be ideal for consumer electronics applications such as camcorders, laptops, DVDs, and digital cameras to wirelessly communicate with each in a home environment. The wirelessly networked home, of course, has long been an elusive goal for consumer electronics companies. Wireless transmission of video is seen as the key to making it become a reality.

Today's digital video transmissions use MPEG-2 for encoding and require up to 12 Mbps to broadcast the video. In addition, higher rate encoding standards such as HDTV and MPEG-2HD (High Definition) use higher rate transmissions in excess of 20 Mbps per video stream. Leading DVD companies have stated that they are moving to MPEG-2HD, underscoring the need for a wireless home technology that can deliver extremely high bandwidth for multiple channels of digital video transmission.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association of America, DVD equipment sales for North America are forecasted to reach approximately 17 million units in 2003, representing a significant market opportunity for wireless connectivity solutions.

"Companies are definitely ramping up for a Christmas 2003 major rollout," said David Hoover, an analyst who tracks ultra wideband for the Precursor Group, an independent, investor side research firm in Washington, D.C. "It's a lot easier to stream audio and video with UWB. The consumer electronics market is what we believe will be the first niche market for UWB."

The Players
Indeed, since the February FCC ruling freeing spectrum for the commercial use of UWB, Intel, Cisco, and Motorola have all said they will enter the UWB market with products in late 2003.

Huntsville, Ala.-based Time Domain Corp., one of the earliest players in the ultra wideband field with U.S. West as a minority partner, announced in June it was expanding the company's semiconductor design capabilities with the opening of a new design center in Nevada City, Calif. The company is working on its third-generation chipset, which is targeted to deliver hundreds of megabits per second throughput for multimedia traffic.

In July, XtremeSpectrum, a Northern Virginia UWB developer that attracted a $12 million investment round in June and counts Texas Instruments among its investors , demonstrated the "extreme bandwidth" and "wire-like" video quality of its new Trinity chipset.

Using the popular MPEG2 video format, XtremeSpectrum broadcast six video streams to six separate flat panel displays simultaneously across the room using a single ultra wideband connection. According to the company, the streaming video, enabled by the Trinity chipset, offered "true wire-like" performance while co-existing with an 802.11b system, a microwave oven, a cellular/PCS phone and a cordless phone, all in simultaneous operation.

"With six simultaneous streams of video, this demonstration is intended to showcase not only the high performance capabilities of our ultra-wideband product, but Trinitys ability to co-exist with systems and products in the popular 2.4 GHz and PCS/cellular ranges found in most homes today," said Martin Rofheart, XtremeSpectrum's CEO. "And, not only does Trinity co-exist with these various technologies, but the video remains unperturbed despite moving people, furniture and walls, all of which are factors in a typical residential scenario. Based on this demonstration, we believe ultra wideband will become the pervasive wireless technology for consumer connectivity applications."

XtremeSpectrum officials and other UWB proponents are predicting television sets that wirelessly send different programs to other television sets in the house, camcorders that wirelessly connect with monitors and portable, flat screen computer monitors that can be wirelessly tethered to a CPU located anywhere in the home, not mention to wireless connections between VCRs and televisions to streamline that rat's nest of wires behind the home entertainment center.

With existing FCC restrictions in place, XtremeSpectrum is predicting that its products will have a range of 30 feet with data rates around 100 Mbps with no drop off. Intel's director of wireless technology, Ben Manny, says his company has a goal of 500 Mbps.

"One of the major consumer opportunities is solving the problem of wireless digital video and audio distribution within the home. Consumers want it, consumer electronics OEMs want to provide it and now, with emerging technologies, wireless companies are ready to deliver it. Indeed, by adding wireless to everything from TVs to home theater gear to set-top boxes, this vision can become reality," Rofheart said earlier this summer.

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