The chequered history of ultra-fast wireless networking took another surprise turn today as the Intel-backed WiMedia group got its ultra wide-band (UWB) proposal rubber-stamped by the standards body ECMA.

The company will now propose that the IEEE drops its own UWB efforts.

UWB can provide 500 Mbit/s networking over short ranges at low power (read more), but the technology has been held up, as rival proposals were stalled in the major networking standards body, the IEEE. Now one of the warring UWB industry groups, WiMedia, has had its proposal rubber-stamped by a different standards body, ECMA, and members announced their intention to move that IEEE abandon its UWB work,

ECMA, whose members are manufacturers, has published two standards, ECMA-368 and 369, based directly on the WiMedia UWB proposals. These had previously reached stalemate in the IEEE, where they were blocked by rival proposals from Motorola-backed Freescale in a debate that lasted for years. ECMA, by contrast, approved WiMedia unanimously, in about three months.

"This is the first international standard in the world, for UWB," said Stephen Wood, president of the WiMedia Alliance, at an ECMA meeting in Nice. Although ECMA is historically European (its name originally stood for European Computer Manufacturers' Association), it now sees itself as an international body. This standard will be only applicable in the US for now, however, since that is the only country where wireless regulators allow UWB products.

Wood also pointed out that ECMA has a fast-track relationship with the International Standardisation Organisation, ISO, so ECMA standards can become international standards.

"Next year, standards based Wireless USB products will be shipping, based on these ECMA standards, which should be interoperable with other UWB applications," said Eric Rosser, of Staccato, a UWB company that opened a London office today in order to be closer to European UWB efforts.

Others were less positive: "Freescale has third-generation silicon being built into consumer electronics now. The proposition for the IEEE to withdraw might backfire and push Freescale's technology further in the IEEE," said Gary Smith Anderson, of UWB company Uraxs, who has been lobbying the ITU telecoms body on the issue of regulations for UWB.

As expected, Freescale slammed the move: "WiMedia's move to Ecma - basically a move to a regionally focused industrial body and away from IEEE - is in many ways disappointing, although not surprising," said Martin Rofheart, director of UWB at Freescale. "IEEE-SA is a consensus organisation dedicated to attaining global worldwide standards. Ecma is an organisation aimed at assisting industry with standards; primarily in Europe."

At the end of the day, Freescale believes standards only become meaningful when a commercially available solution is poised to be pervasive in the market," said Rofheart. "We continue to focus our efforts on delivering a high performance, low cost UWB solution to customers worldwide, while supporting standards and regulatory efforts globally."

"The overwhelming majority of the major silicon and handset makers, are behind WiMedia," maintained Wood. "The IEEE was not being representative of the will of the market."

ECMA's successes include approving the DVD standard, and the standard for near-field communication (NFC), as well as approving the Javascript scripting language, under the name ECMAscript.

Whether the ECMA move ends the standards war, or fuels the flames, the industry will also be working on regulations. Telecoms regulators round the world have to legislate to allow or forbid UWB, by creating limits of frequency and power within which devices can operate. So far only the US allows UWB, and to create an international market, other countries must allow UWB under similar restrictions.

"There are four recommendations in the last stage of the approval process," said Anderson. "There is a very big chance that there would be no major issues, and the ITU could give its final blessing in the next month or so, creating a level playing field globally."

This won't sort out the standards issue, he said - that depends on what happens in the market - but it will make more likely that there could be a global market in which the standards war can be fought.