Within the next two years, we should start to see fast wireless links based on ultrawideband (UWB), taking the place of short-range connections such as USB and Firewire, and providing fast data links between consumer goods. Chipmakers are now on the verge of creating the silicon, and vendor groups are completing the standards.
But the technology may have trouble getting a world market, as regulators wrestle with the objections of the cellphone industry. UWB standards are in deadlock at the IEEE; but what the regulators say matters far more to the future of the technology.
At the Ultrawideband Europe conference in London last week, a select group of vendors and regulators made the issues quite clear.
UWB crosses boundaries
In a nutshell, UWB has problems because it is hard to pigeon hole. The technology operates at low energies, across a wide radio spectrum - and also crosses boundaries between markets. Some applications look very IT-centric (get rid of all your UWB cables, synchronise large data files), and some look intensely consumer-centric (move video streams between rooms in your home).
UWB's issues, with regulators, standards bodies, and vendor groups, are simply because it is so difficult to pin down - because it is so new.
Technologies will compete
It's tempting to think that the vendor deadlock could be resolved by allowing several standards. The two factions competing in the IEEE seem to address different applications - the Intel-backed WiMedia group is pitching at the IT world, with a replacement for USB and Firewwire (and has published its PHY layer independently), and the Motorola-backed Freescale proposal is aiming for home entertainment centres.
"Both technologies have moved forward, and are further apart now," said Steven Moore, director of intellectual property at Pulse-Link, a UWB start-up which recently started a third proposal, CWave, outside the IEEE. Moore reckons that the technologies started competing, but are now addressing applications far enough apart that the IEEE could define two standards (or three if you count CWave).
WiMedia disagrees: "The markets they are aiming at are converging," said Stephen Wood of Intel, also president of the WiMedia Alliance. Consumers want to move MP3 files around, and businesses want to ship Powerpoints, he says: "If we create standards that segment office and consumer products, they user will not be pleased. They want to share content."
"What will dictate this is the economies of scale," he said. Users don't want to have different standards to move data wirelessly, any more than they want different - and more expensive - formats of CD and DVD for their office data. WiMedia is already being looked at by several consumer phone companies added Wood, so the consumer/business division is already being blurred.
With that in mind, the IEEE will remain a battleground, but the vendors plan to get on with selling products. And that means the regulators - who decide what can or can't be sold - are going to be a key issue.
The US regulator, the FCC, blazed a trail by allowing UWB products, as long as they emit less radio signal than "unintentional radios" such as CD players and computers. The basic principle has survived challenges from competing UWB factions, and evolved into the concept of a "mask" of permitted power levels at any given frequency.
The question now is, whether that concept can be exported to the rest of the world, creating a world market for UWB products? UK regulator Ofcom certainly hopes so: "If we stick closely to the FCC mask, there will be global economies of scale, and cheaper equipment," says William Webb, head of research and development at Ofcom. "If we have a mask that is much more restrictive, people might try to import kit from the UW that works better. It will be difficult to enforce."
The biggest obstacle in the way is likely to be the telecoms operators in Europe, who have paid dearly 3G spectrum, and are likely to object to any suggestion that other equipment can share it. Their viewpoint is likely to be backed by mobile eqipment vendors, and will seem strange to the US vendors.
"The US never put aside spectrum for 3G," said Webb. "They upgraded 2G systems with CDMA 2000, while Europe and most of the rest of the world set aside new spectrum, that is higher in frequency than most of the 2G spectrum in the US."
"Coverage is money," said Pekka Rante. "If there is interference, operators may see a loss of capacity." Even if the interference just removes a few percent of the mobile coverage, that costs the operator.
The problem is, those speaking for the telecoms industry sometimes find themselves arguing for more stringent controls on UWB devices than on "unintentional radios", ordinary electronic equipment - or even from the thermal radiation produced by human beings. This tends to irritate the vendors and UWB proponents, as it seems to suggest that the European mobile industry is not objecting to the noise - but the simple fact that people are communicating without their say-so.
"Some people are asking for power limits less than the power emitted by the human body," said Steven Moore, director of intellectual property at Pulse-Link. "Some suggestions are less than thermal noise."
Ofcom is being diplomatic, saying that the mask will have to be tighter here, but not unreasonably so. "What consultants tell us is that, if we have signal levels above -85dbM we are safe, and above -65dbM the interference is still not that great," said Webb.
Consultations all the way
Ofcom has a consultation on UWB open till the 24 March (read the consultation document and the responses so far) . "It's early to say what the tenor of the responses will be," said Webb. We expect a polarisation of views, with some strongly in favour, and some strongly against."
This has deliberately been timed to coincide with a European consultation; the European telecom regulator, CEPT, will give a final report to the European Commission in April. "We hope to use our consultation as a vehicle to influence what happens in CEPT," said Webb.
Although Ofcom regulates the UK's spectrum independently, The EC can pass mandates that affect the whole of European spectrum - as it did in the case of 3G - but Ofcom is free within those mandates. The international telecoms body, the ITU, is also working on global guidelines for UWB.
With all these things going on, there is no very clear path. "The next month will be an interesting period," said Webb.