PC platform is centre stage for UWB battle

Start with PCs, then migrate to consumer electronics: this is the pattern for digital interconnects, a pattern that research firm In-Stat is betting will be true for ultra wide band (UWB) wireless.

Qasim Inam, research analyst in In-Stat’s enabling technologies group, believes that the WiMedia Alliance is setting the standard. WiMedia, an ISO-published radio platform for UWB wireless connectivity, has an impressive list of members, including Intel, HP, Samsung and Sony.

“The biggest hurdle with UWB has been the standard,” says Inam, indicating that this is reminiscent of the Beta and VHS debate in the 80s. “UWB can integrate with any legacy wired infrastructure and become wireless. But if we have two for Bluetooth and two for wireless USB, it becomes a mess.”

Many have fallen away, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 2006. Others such as Pulse-LINK have little traction and are downplaying the debate, despite the fact Pulse-LINK took first-mover status when its CWave technology began delivering over 430 megabits.

“We don’t think of ourselves as a competitor with WiMedia,” says Pulse-LINK’s CEO Bruce Watkins. “We were around prior to FCC approval of ultra wide band in 2002. WiMedia came around a couple of years later. What WiMedia is doing is focusing on wireless USB to replace cables on a PC.”

This is true: Pulse-LINK is a fabless semiconductor company, and its products mostly find their way into home entertainment systems. It also explains why Inam thinks that most of the PC-related companies are falling into the WiMedia camp.

Stephen Wood, WiMedia’s technology strategist, confirms the alliance’s view of the relevance of the PC market to UWB adoption.

“The PC market can turn fairly quickly. You can get a lot of traction with units on the ground very fast, and we know that there is demand for devices to communicate with PCs.”

In the fragmented and complex world of wireless connectivity, UWB trades off distance, completely forgets about mobility, and focuses exclusively on bandwidth.

“We take it to an extreme,” says Wood. “We reduce coverage to a single room and put out 480 megabits, and we’ve got members working at over 900.”

As proof that the standards war has some legs, Pulse-LINK’s Watkins disputes how much of WiMedia’s 480 is usable.

“We can network at one gig but are usable at 400 megahertz,” he says. “Why? Everybody advertises usable data layer, but that’s only what you can transmit in terms of packets. You don’t get to use all of that. There’s a lot of overhead — packet headers, preambles, signal checkers, retransmit functions.”

Either way, WiMedia’s UWB is ready for market. Wireless USB is shipping immediately and will be on retail shelves for Christmas. The shrink-wrapped products will be in the form of a dongle, one side for a printer and another for a PC. Next up will be cameras, televisions, and set-tops.

“We think that integration will become more and more intense, including Bluetooth 2.4 UWB,” says WiMedia’s Wood.

Given that WiMedia is an industry alliance, there will be no attempt to create a separate brand. Instead, the alliance will leverage off of existing brands such as Bluetooth. Chips will start in the $10 to $15 dollar range, with the first downshift to $4 and then perhaps even lower.

In-Stat’s Inam believes that UWB will not replace fixed wire, and that dual mode will be the name of the game for the near term.

“Starting at the end of this year to the start of 2009 we’ll see some big changes,” says Inam. UWB’s ability to work as point-to-point means better bandwidth control and reduced bottlenecks, Inam says. As a result, despite the growth in WiFi for peripherals, Inam expects UWB to surpass it. This is because in the peripheral space wireless data transfer is more relevant than distance or mobility. It also reflects the changing usage model of computing, wherein consumer electronics are adding features to everything.

“Convergence is happening because the consumer electronics guys are eager to add UWB to their technologies,” says Inam. “Demand is being driven by the explosion in digital content and includes cameras, DVD and MP3 players. Gaming is also a factor, as is the drive to a services model. If you can get it over the Internet, why use a box?”

WiMedia’s Wood insists that infrastructure is also there to deliver on future requirements so that there is not a redesign every decade. And from an enterprise perspective some conveniences are in store.

“Imagine instead of carrying a PC into a presentation you bring your cell phone,” says Wood. “You put it down next to a wireless projector and run a PowerPoint presentation.”