UWB Must Survive The Format Wars

Wireless technologies tend to spring up quickly, but often do not take root until the adoption of a standard. For one thing, integrated-circuit (IC) suppliers are reluctant to commit to a proposed technology if there is some uncertainty about how long that technology will be in use. Through the acceptance of a standard, the industry is (for the most part) acknowledging that one method is superior than alternative approaches and will thereby support that method in their own products.

Ultrawideband (UWB) technology holds the promise of high data rates for short-range, low-power communications. Some companies have promoted (hyped?) UWB as THE wireless multimedia technology of the future, pointing to its generous data rates as ideal for short-range video transmissions. But as with any wireless communications technology, there is a "rite of passage" for UWB before it can be accepted by an industry of chip and instrument makers, just as there had been for wireless local-area networks (WLANs) before it.

Some engineers currently involved with UWB painfully remember the issues leading to the eventually establishment of WLAN standards. Long debates within IEEE task group meetings on the merits of frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) versus direct-sequence spread spectrum (DSSS) begrudgingly led to compromises and the final acceptance of the first WLAN standard at 2.4 GHz, IEEE 802.11b. One of the driving considerations for that standard was the FCC's requirement that any WLAN solution must favor coexistence with established ISM-band applications over bandwidth efficiency.

Since there were compromises on the available data rate, and the FCC eventually relaxed its requirements on coexistence, later WLAN standards (802.11a and g, for example) pursued improved bandwidth efficiency. But the initial debates delayed WLAN technology, and cost manufacturers market time. Without a relatively fast resolution to the UWB debates, the same fate could await this novel technology.

The many original proposals for UWB technology (see p. 33) as a wireless personal-area network (WPAN) have apparently come down to two groups: the XtremeSpectrum/Motorola "wideband" version and the Multiband OFDM Alliance (MBOA) "narrowband" version (backed by Intel, Texas Instruments, and others). Both provide huge amounts of data with very little power, albeit with different modulation approaches. If one is a standard, the other is not. But with a standard at hand, chip suppliers, software developers, test-equipment makers, and others involved in the commercialization of UWB technology can move forward and help UWB bypass the market-slowing indecision that haunted the early days of WLANs.

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