Half-a-Gigabit wireless links could start replacing USB in 2005. Groups promoting Ultra Wideband (UWB) wireless networking have decided to create an industry specification outside the stalled IEEE standards process, and propose it as a replacement for USB. Alongside these announcements at the Intel Developer Forum, one eager vendor showed a developer kit and announced plans to build wireless USB chips with NEC

One fly in the ointment for those in the UK is that, so far, only the US radio authority (the FCC) has given the OK to use the radical UWB technology. Conventional radios send out a single, continuous carrier wave over a specified frequency. By contrast, UWB sends out very short, fast low-power pulses of energy and spreads them over a wide swath of frequencies, which makes it a regulator's nightmare. However, enthusiasts are hopeful that the FCC's compomise, which allows UWB at lower power than interence leaked by non-communicating devices such as stereos, will be adopted here in time (Read our UWB feature for the background).

UWB uses modulation techniques such as orthogonal frequency division modulation (OFDM) or direct sequencing, however the industry has so far failed to agree on which. These two different techniques are the basis of rival UWB proposals being considered by the IEEE standards body, in its 802.15.3a Task Group (TG3a), charged with crafting a high-speed, physical-layer standard for so-called personal-area networks with a range of about 30 feet.

Formally, the IEEE is a US body, contributing to international standards work at the UN body ISO, but in practice it is the world's final arbiter of all LAN standards. And unfortunately, it has not been able to knock the heads of the rival proponents hard enough.

The largest UWB group is the MultiBand OFDM Alliance (MBOA) backed by Intel and about sixty others, but its efforts to start a standards process in TG3a have been blocked repeatedly by a minority group led by Motorola.

Unwilling to delay, MBOA members have formally become a special interest group outside the IEEE to accelerate their work and create what they hope will be a de facto standard for UWB. The first version of the specification will be published in May, and products are expected in early-to-mid 2005. The group explains its reasons in press release.

Meanwhile, a newly-formed Wireless USB Promoter Group plans to use that spec to create a 480 Mbit/s wire-free replacement for the widely used Universal Serial Bus (USB) interface, linking PCs and peripherals. An existing group called the WiMedia Alliance has defined a "Radio Platform" interface which offers a standard interface to radio technologies, so USB, Firewire and other services can be run easily over the same underlying UWB specification when it is completed.

If all that wasn't exciting enough, one UWB vendor, Staccato Communications, has announced it is shipping a wireless USB development kit, comprising a set of components that plug into a PC for software development of wireless USB applications. Staccato also revealed it is partnering with NEC to design and build wireless USB chipsets.

"As work progressed, it has become obvious that a more formal structure is needed, simply for issues like intellectual property development, rules and procedures on decision making, etc.," says Mark Fidler, senior engineer scientist with HP's imaging and printing systems group, and an MBOA participant, in an e-email interview.

The SIG's activities won't slow up the process of getting a standard to market, according to Fidler. Intel looks very much the leader of the gang (and chief technical officer Pat Gelsinger made fast wireless a part of his IDF keynote). However, the MBOA also includes Microsoft, Nokia, Philips, NEC, Panasonic, Samsung and Fujitsu.

"I think it gives a clear path for a specification to be developed, and also a forum for device and silicon producers to come together to express needs, wants, desires, etc.," wrote HP's Fidler. "The MBOA has every intention of of sticking with the current IEEE task group, and the MBOA has also made a commitment to the leaders of the IEEE to bring any relevant specifications back to the IEEE for incorporation into an IEEE specification. I believe, as others do, that this (creation of the SIG) could actually accelerate the process."

The newly created Wireless USB Promoter Group also centres around Intel, but also includes Agere, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, NEC and Samsung. The group has already started defining a wireless implementation of the USB 2.0 interconnect, which will use the MBOA's eventual specification and WiMedia's radio platform.

In a statement, the group said it will preserve the existing USB device and class driver infrastructure and investment, as well as the "look and feel" and ease of use of the wired USB specification.

In a January interview with Network World, Stephen Wood, who oversees UWB strategy for Intel's communications laboratories, described Intel's conviction that cellular, PC and handheld technologies are converging. UWB, he said, becomes the means to bring an array of data streams into the PC and to share this data with other devices. "We'll see this convergence, this interaction among devices via this personal area network functionality," he said.

Staccato's new SC1030D development platform will let USB developers work with draft elements of the MBOA standard. It includes the company's Multiband OFDM physical layer (PHY) transceiver, and its media access control (MAC) layer board.

"For prototyping and early development, we're providing the first actual (UWB) stack," says Mark Bowles, vice president of marketing for Staccato.