FCC Ushers in Ultra-Wideband Era

By Roy Mark

February 14, 2002

Unanimous vote clears the way for technology that proponents say will provide higher data rates and lower power consumption than either 802.11 or Bluetooth.

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unanimously approved rules Thursday morning to permit the marketing and operation of ultra-wide band (UWB) technology, which will allow wireless devices and services that deliver higher data bit rates with lower power consumption than either Bluetooth or 802.11.

The devices operate by employing very narrow or short duration pulses that result in very large or "wideband" transmission bandwidths. The devices can operate using spectrum already occupied by existing radio services and, according to the FCC, without causing interference.

UWB presented a novel regulatory issue because time pulse technology does not displace existing frequency users but, instead, overlays wide swaths of existing spectrum.

The FCC has been attempting since 1998 to a find a way to approve and promote UWB technology because of the potential commercial applications that include multiple streams of digital audio and video and wireless broadband connections between home appliances.

Opponents to UWB technology fear interference from the devices could potentially disrupt public services such as aviation, fire, police and rescue efforts.

The FCC characterized Thursday's ruling as "ultra conservative" and a cautious first step. The rules establish different technical standards and operating restrictions for three types of UWB devices based on their potential to cause interference: imaging systems including ground penetrating radars to detect objects underground, wall, through-wall, medical imaging and surveillance devices; vehicular radar systems; and communications and measurement systems.

However, Washington research firm Precursor Group, predicts, "Although the initial uses will be circumscribed by 'technical' issues, e.g., in-building, the potential for a broad array of wireless applications -- devices and services -- is huge. As with any new wireless technology, the key is securing initial approval of the transmission platform upon which the investable commercial applications will be developed."

Precursor said the initial commercial winners would likely be Time Domain, Xtreme Spectrum, Radar, Inc., and Zircon Corp. The new technology, according to Spectrum, would be a negative for Bluetooth, 802.11, Qualcomm and Sprint PCS.

The UWB standards approved by the FCC are based in large measure on standards that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) believes are necessary to protect against interference to vital federal government operations. The FCC plans to review the standards in the next 6-12 months to explore the potential of more flexible standards and to address the operation of additional types of UWB operations and technology.

"Spectrum management decisions are always complex and challenging. In an environment where the amount of unencumbered spectrum is decreasing while demand continues to grow, it is even more critical we make interference and sharing decisions that do not waste this precious resource," said Commissioner Kevin J. Martin. "Inevitably we will depend more and more on sharing spectrum currently available to avoid such waste."

Moore said spectrum sharing decisions are made more difficult by a "fiefdom" mentality on the part of some agencies that "fervently guard their turf, regardless of whether additional use can be accommodated."

He added that, "Most importantly, ultra-wideband challenges the notion that use of particular frequencies or bands is necessarily mutually exclusive. In defiance of our traditional allocation paradigm that often forces us to pick 'winners and losers' in the face of competing demands, this technology seems to allow more winners all around."

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