The UK economy could lose billions of pounds unless there is a Europe-wide agreement to allow ultra-wide band (UWB) radio - and soon - according to a group being formed to take up the UWB fight.

The Communications Innovation Institute hopes to sign up 12 founder members paying £100,000 each and 300 ordinary members paying £5,000. It will then form working groups to provide input to international organisations, and lobby relevant bodies. This is necessary, the CII argues, because rich telcos wishing to preserve their monopoly could fight proposals to allow low-power UWB signals in the spectrum they licensed for 3G networks.

"I’m worried that we could get bogged down with lawyers," said David Cleevely, chairman of the Communications Innovation Institute, at an open day on open wireless communications at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory. That the CII was started with money from BT - the telco with most to lose - was quietly glossed over while other grandees including BT but also the BBC, T-Mobile, Microsoft, Intel, Juniper and Orange discussed UWB's possible future. None would say whether they intend to pay the £100,000 joining fee.

Cleevely is passionate however: "If we’re right about the way spectrum is going to be used, this could be a very important meeting in setting the agenda for the UK and the rest of the world." The meeting will set up a promoter group involving industry and academics, which hopes to work out ways to approach spectrum licensing that will allow a world market for UWB devices.

"The UK could consume billions of UWB chips per year," said Cleevely. He predicts the technology will be used for wireless interconnects within devices, replacing some PCB connections, and for in-car radar systems that will increase the throughput of motorways without more roads being built, by automatically adjusting the relative speed of cars.

Research at the University of Cambridge has used UWB for location sensing inside buildings. "It’s authorised for use in the States, and is being sold," said Professor Andy Hopper, head of the computer lab at Cambridge University. "Location sensing has been developed in this town for fifteen years, but canot be sold, Ofcom are not being very helpful."

UWB uses so little power that, even with this many devices, the impact on cellular networks would be slight. Ofcom has proposed a "mask" of maximum power output levels that would cause "so little economic cost to the operators it would be unmeasurable," said Cleevely.

Cleevely has written a response from the IEE - the UK’s Institution of Electrical Engineers - to Ofcom’s proposed mask, that suggests more work should be done in predicting the effect of large numbers of UWB devices, but he is optimistic: "It’s tough, and we won’t get the perfect mask at all levels, but it is probably achievable."

If UWB is prevented, it would be a classic "market failure", said Cleevely, an example of an economic event called the tragedy of the commons. "Would you pay £3 billion to stop UWB happening?" asked Cleevely. If we allow its opponents to stop the technology, he argues, this is what we will have done.