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Ultrawideband: A Better Bluetooth

Outlook: The wireless personal-area network technology is more than 100 times faster than Bluetooth, but business applications are still a long way off.

August 2, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Ultrawideband wireless technology has been called "Bluetooth on steroids." Like Bluetooth, its personal-area network (PAN) cousin, UWB is designed to replace cables with short-range, wireless connections, but it offers the much higher bandwidth needed to support multimedia data streams at very low power levels. And because UWB can communicate both relative distance and position, it can be used for tracking equipment, containers or other objects.

In a recent technology demonstration, Freescale Semiconductor Inc. in Tempe, Ariz., showed a UWB device that transmitted at a data rate of 110Mbit/sec. at a range of up to 10 meters. That bandwidth—100 times faster than Bluetooth and twice the capacity of the fastest Wi-Fi networks—is enough to pump three concurrent video streams over a single UWB connection. Vendors are promising UWB products that support speeds up to 1Gbit/sec.

Waiting for UWB

While the prospect of 100Mbit/sec. data transfers is exciting, UWB is probably three or more years away from widespread adoption, especially for business use, according to chip makers and analysts. Government regulators outside the U.S. haven't approved the use of UWB, and standards bodies are arguing over the final specification.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., predicts that the first products with UWB chips, designed for home theater applications, will debut next year. Mass adoption of the technology won't come until 2007, he says.

Business applications, when they come, will center on UWB as a replacement for the Universal Serial Bus standard, says Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. UWB could be used to easily connect several laptops to a single projector to handle video or slide presentations, or it could be used to back up large files quickly, he says. Eventually, workers could carry a portable storage device equipped with a system image and UWB connectivity. Users would be able to sit down at any workstation, connect via UWB and start working.
"It's very, very significant technology, and UWB is a guaranteed win," adds Mathias, noting that 50 companies are making UWB chips, including heavyweights like Intel Corp. But vendors have yet to agree on a standard. Intel is backing one camp, while another industry giant, Motorola Inc. (through its Freescale subsidiary), is backing the other.
UWB faces serious regulatory hurdles as well, "so it's hard for it to move forward," Mathias says. The U.S. is the only country to approve spectrum for use by UWB radios. Regulators worry that UWB will interfere with a range of other wireless devices that operate in the same spectrum, including cell phones, says Steven Wood, a strategy planner at Intel.

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