The UWB Phone Ecosystem

By Eric Griffith

December 18, 2006

SK Telecom of Korea has big plans for handsets using ultrawideband to become the center of a user's computing and social networking universe.

Staccato Communications calls it "a first for ultrawideband." The chip maker is working with South Korea's SK Telecom and some unnamed partners to make phone handsets that use UWB technology for a variety of uses. The goal: Turn the phone into the central computing platform for the user, as well as to kick off what Staccato calls Personal Area Social Networking (PASN).

Such phones could actually start trickling into the market in 2007, with volume shipment in 2008 — a year ahead of any previous estimates, according to Mark Bowles, vice president of Business Development & Corporate Marketing of Staccato. He's also a co-founder.

Of SK Telecom, he says, "These guys are historically aggressive at rolling stuff out. They have a large number of firsts." Indeed, SK helped launch the mobile WiMax technology called WiBro earlier this year, long before there was an official mobile WiMax standard.

UWB is known for low power and high throughput speed. The WiMedia-based UWB specification is the basis for Certified Wireless USB and will be powering faster Bluetooth in the future. But it's also not a long range technology. So how exactly will it be put to use?

The handset will handle a number of different ways of communicating beyond just standard voice traffic. In a white paper entitled "Leveraging Ultra Wideband (UWB) Technology To Enable Next-Generation  Handset-Centric Applications," Staccato spells out the application models:

  • A handset-to-PC connection using Wireless USB to transfer or synchronize files. This also makes it easy for printing or backing up data.
  • Driving a larger display, which is utilizing a big monitor to see what's going on in your phone. "It opens up the possibility for a handset to be functioning like a PC," says Bowles. "Your phone would be like a personal server you take with you." This could tie into your monitor at home or office or even in the car. Maybe even the TV.
  • Handset to handset communication is the basis for the PASN idea, which "brings the Internet social networking phenomenon to the physical world," according to Bowles. Unlike MySpace or FaceBook, however, the PASN on the handset activates when in proximity to another UWB-equipped phone. "As you pass people, it can allow a lot of things to happen. Imagine your eHarmony profile activating while you sit next to your soul mate on the subway. This is a way to use technology as a filter to the physical world."
  • Handset to kiosk/access point communications is a little bit more like a Wi-Fi hotspot, but it could power what Bowles calls the "Starbucks metaphor." That's where the phone is used to download things like video or audio. Much like the Microsoft Zune MP3 player can do today with Wi-Fi, he pictures people sharing files and eventually users becoming "viral salesmen" of their favorite digital content. "Push the content and you earn credits," he says. "You push songs to friends, you get one yourself." SK Telecom, of course, has an iTunes-like online store to facilitate that. Plus, unlike in the states, carriers frequently own and operate retail outlets. SK can use that to roll out kiosks and access points to offer services.

Bowles couldn't name the other parties involved with Staccato and SK Telecom in making the new UWB phones. He did project that handsets would be prototyped and demoed by mid-2007, probably even in time for the 3GSM World Congress 2007 show in February in Barcelona, Spain. "They [SK] want to roll out initial service by the end of the year and more in 2008. The infrastructure part will take longer, but getting it into handsets with initial features, that's started."

The phones will be built to support not just Certified Wireless USB but also WiMedia Network (WiNET) protocol adaptation layer for interoperability with other TCP/IP services.

Bowles says a significant piece of this announcement is that it shows that carriers are not against the use of radios running below the 6GHz radio frequency band. Right now that's where most, if not all, the UWB chips run, but recent rulings by the FCC in the United States as well as by the appropriate bodies in Korea, Japan, and the European Union are leading the way to use of any band between 3-10GHz.

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