Erstwhile partners are now arch rivals in a high profile ultra-wideband (UWB) “standards” battle that could have a profound impact on the consumer electronics market. UWB is a very powerful radio frequency concept that does not need to be restricted to one flavour du jour.Michael Rozender>Text
Ultra-wideband can wirelessly transmit up to 480 megabits of data per second to devices such as stereos and high-definition TVs at ranges of up to 30 feet.
The rival crusaders in the UWB campaign are the WiMedia Alliance – a coalition of companies spearheaded by chipmakers Intel Corp., Samsung Electronics Co., and Texas Instruments, and the UWB Forum that until recently was backed by Texas-based Freescale Semiconductor Inc. and its big daddy Motorola Corp.
WiMedia’s mandate as stated on its Web site is to: “promote wireless multimedia connectivity and interoperability between devices in a personal area network.” More specifically, the Alliance is developing a wireless technology that could eliminate cables behind TV sets and other entertainment appliances.
Well the other contender in this contest has quite an agenda as well.
The UWB Forum is working on an alternative standard based on wireless universal serial bus (USB) that some experts believe could give the Alliance quite a run for its money.
“Wired USB has been an outstanding success story,” said Michael Rozender, principal of Oakville, Ont.-based consulting firm Rozender Consultants International. “If [Freescale] can develop and license a wireless USB standard on its own, that could be the killer app of UWB.”
Up until January this year, Motorola and its spinoff, Freescale, were part of a group of companies collaborating with the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers to develop UWB standards.
Freescale got a head start on UWB in 2003 when it bought XTreme Spectrum of Virginia, which already had a working prototype of a UWB chip.
Freescale wanted the chip to be the basis of the new UWB standard – precipitating a disagreement in January this year that split the coalition into the WiMedia Alliance and the UWB Forum.
And the rift didn’t end there. Early this month, Freescale and Motorola, broke away from the 150 company strong UWB Forum to focus on wireless USB 2.0 applications.
Meanwhile the WiMedia Alliance was proclaiming its own account of the good news: a version of UWB for data transmission, along with high quality video and audio applications for portable and multi-media devices.
Its efforts got a tremendous boost when the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) endorsed the Alliance’s version of UWB.
This endorsement has made Alliance members cock-a-hoop about the future. The support from the Bluetooth Special SIG, they say, has given them potential access to more than 500 million users for products based on ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless technology.
“More than 10 million Bluetooth radio devices per week were shipped last year,” said Jason Ellis, director of business development and marketing for Staccato Communications. “You can imagine the potential users we’ll have access to.” Based in San Diego, Calif., Staccato is a member of the WiMedia Alliance.
While both the Freescale and Alliance camps are proclaiming the UWB gospel, there’s a significant difference in their technology approach.
Freescale’s chips send out radio signals in rapid sequence over a wide frequency, while WiMedia Alliance’s method divides the spectrum into channels and transmits signals over them simultaneously.
Ellis is rooting for WiMedia, which he says has a definite edge. “Freescale’s technology is now more than seven years old. It also transmits over a two gigabit frequency that renders it susceptible to radio interference.”
Ellis said while high definition TV only needs a transmission rate of 20 megabits per second, WiMedia’s method is capable of transmitting at 480 megabits per second. “We can send data with significantly less compression and greater error correction.”
While Ellis concedes there are no products using WiMedia Alliance’s technology out in the market yet, he expects this to change “by the third quarter of 2006.”
Two UWB Forum members, Belkin Corp., and Gefen Inc., have separately unveiled cable-free USB applications recently. Both applications wirelessly connect a laptop to a USB hub where printers and other peripherals can be plugged in. The system transmits at 100 megabits per second.
Motorola and Freescale are also pursuing a faster alternative with wireless USB 2.0, which can transmit at half a gig per second. The competing companies may have delayed the creation of UWB standards, but according to Rozender the ongoing research on could provide consumers more choice.
“It’s not like a race where one camp will have to predominate to avoid a Beta/VHS type war. UWB is a very powerful radio frequency concept that does not need to be restricted to one flavour du jour,” Rozender said.
He said except for its hold on the wireless headset market, Bluetooth has been a big disappointment due to higher than expected chip cost and high power consumption. The technology failed to capture a wider market primarily because adaptors for Bluetooth were very expensive. “It needs UWB broadband performance to make it in the video and gaming market, and WiMedia needs a strong partner to compete with the UWB Forum.”
In the short term, the wireless USB niche offers a larger market, as all PCs manufactured in the past two years have a USB 2.0 port.
As far as consumers are concerned, Rozender said, the “battle will be at the price point.”
“The market doesn’t care that an application is pure UWB or a WiMedia/Bluetooth version or Freescale.”
“All consumers want now are wireless USB ports because they work and are affordable.”