The rivals in fast, short-range ultra-wide band (UWB) technology are slugging it out again this week: Motorola is pushing its products, showing modules which could be available by the end of the year, while the Intel-backed rival group, MBOA, is focussed on standards, forming a body to bypass the deadlock in the IEEE. The UWB wars are now so intense that some observers think the 802.11n standard may beat it in the market.

Motorola-owned FreeScale's 110 Mbit/s XS110 chip has been put into miniPCI and IEEE-1394 modules by Taiwanese manufacturers GlobalSun and USI respectively. Both expect to ship products in volume in the next quarter, nine months ahead of the expected arrival of standard MBOA products.

These modules bring the technology one step from consumer products, said Martin Rofheart, director of UWB operations at Freescale. The current chips offer 110Mbit/s over 10 metres, but by the end of next year, sample chips will deliver 1Gbit/s over the same distance.

Ultra-wide band can potentially give this speed using pulsed signals that cross a wide spectrum (see details here), but rival technology groups, led by Intel and Motorola, have been deadlocked in the IEEE standards body. The Intel-backed OFDM proposal has the lead in the IEEE 802.15.3a working group, but has been blocked from getting the needed 75 percent majority.

UWB has been demonstrated as a powerful LAN connection, but its use of radio bandwidth (tiny amounts of it across a very wide spectrum) has made it difficult for regulators to approve, except as a short-distance, low-power link. It could easily do the job of USB cables, and has been proposed as a replacement for them.

The slower-to-market MBOA group has set up a special interest group (SIG) to create specifications outside the IEEE. The group has equipment in the lab delivering USB 2.0 throughput at 480Mbit/s, said Aiello. The physical layer specification is complete, and the MAC (media access control) should be complete the end of the year, with volume production of chips by mid-2005, and products by Christmas 2005. Despite being outside the IEEE, the SIG will have formal rules and legal status, to manage the specifications, because of issues such as intellectual property rights, according to Jim Meyer, vice president of business development at Alereon.

"We would like to see the IEEE adopt our specification, but I don't know if or when it's going to happen," said Roberto Aiello, an MBOA board member and president of UWB vendor Staccato Communications. "Virtually the whole industry is working on the MBOA specification, and this guarantees interoperability and multiple vendors and lower cost for consumers. This is not a technical issue. This is just an economic issue," he said.

MBOA's move is counterproductive, according to one industry analyst. "There's been a lot of posturing and positioning that I think is unnecessary," said the somewhat ubiquitous Craig Mathias, senior analyst at Farpoint Group. "It's very important that both sides get to a single standard." MBOA's latest move is a step in the opposite direction, he said.

But the chairman of the IEEE 802.15 standards group, Bob Heile, is more relaxed: "It's not really important that we have a single solution now. ... Diversity is a good thing now," 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.

Rofheart said market competition will knock one technology out of contention and expressed confidence that direct sequence is far ahead of the MBOA vendors. "You've got to enter the market before you can exit it," Rofheart said.