The wars over standards for ultra-wide band, the fast, low-interference radio technology, may be more than just a nuisance. They might result in the technology being squeezed out of the market by evolutions in existing Wi-Fi.

Although UWB is a revolutionary technology (see explanation) that uses radio entirely differently to produce stunning results - how does 1Gbit/s throughput sound? - its progress in the standards bodies is stalled, while the more pedestrian 802.11 technology is moving steadily forward.

The UWB standards battle is exceptional at IEEE for its length and bitterness and could let Wi-Fi beat it. "As UWB dawdles at the starting gate, it becomes more and more likely that its impact will be muted by a new version of Wi-Fi," said Eric Brown of according to MIT Technology Review.

While the IEEE's 802.15.3a networking committee presides over the tedious grudge match between the two UWB contenders, OFDM and DS, another part the IEEE will be meeting in September to start the process of creating a new wireless LAN specification, 802.11n. Just like UWB, the 802.11 group has two contenders to choose between - or merge - but on past experience of the Wi-Fi family, the dispute is likely to be settled amicably.

802.11n will have 100 Mbit/s throughput, which is more or less the same as the first implementations of UWB, the 110 Mbit/s XtremeSpectrum chipset from Motorola subsidiary FreeScale. The UWB chips are just the start of the UWB story, with much higher bandwidths coming soon, and products should be available by early 2005, but a new Wi-Fi standard would take some of the wind out of their sales.

"Products based on 802.11n will have similar throughput as UWB and a longer range but will be more prone to interference," says Nancy Gohring of Wi-Fi Networking News. "Still, because it will be a future version of 802.11 which is already an entrenched standard it may see rapid adoption and be used for networking home entertainment products — a big market that UWB is after."

"Not only is Wi-Fi a winner in the corporate world and growing fast both in the home and in public hotspots, it will soon invade cell phones and may extend Internet telephony into the wireless realm," says Brown. "A delayed or split UWB standard could mean Wi-Fi will win the home entertainment networking market."

Gohring reckons that Bluetooth will lose traction since Ericsson stopped developing it, and UWB will shuffle across to that cable replacement niche, instead of taking on 802.11.

Although FreeScale is pressing ahead with products, they may be less popular with system vendors, without the blessing of a formal standard. "The customers feel that the blessing of a well-known technical organisation is sufficient justification for them to make the investment," said Craig Mathias, senior analyst of Farpoint Group.

The struggle is unecessary
Ironically, there is absolutely no need for the argument that could stall UWB take-up. As we reported in April, there is a proposal that could allow both standards.

UWB signalling is complex, and controlled by software in the radio. A low-speed signalling mode could be set up to allow different UWB devices to negotiate their favoured method of communications.

Alternatively, the two technologies could be brought together into a single standard with two modes, similar to the way IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN standards evolved, Mathias said. That could foster lower costs through higher volume chip production.

Maybe it's the size of the prize that's the problem
One thing everyone agrees on, is that UWB will definitely win in the longer term. Its spectral efficiency is so good, it has to win in the end. It uses tiny pulses of signals that spread across several GHz of spectrum, conveying information without interference.

This is revolutionary. The full potential of UWB could be unleashed by radical changes in the way spectrum is regulated, and could change the way almost all short range wireless communications are carried out.

However, we can only assume that it is the size of the potential UWB that is distracting the UWB zealots in pointless standards wars that may jeopardise the first stages of bringing products to market.

The chair of the IEEE 802.15 standards group takes a longer view: only the US allows the use of UWB so far, he points out, so it should serve as a test market: "You've got to get some real stuff out there and see how it works," he said.

Global adoption is likely to happen in three to four years, after the US experience teaches important lessons about demand and interference, according to Heile.

Stephen Lawson, IDG News Service, contributed to this feature