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In a move that could portend a major shakeup in wireless networking, the Federal Communications Commission last month licensed the first chipset based on ultrawidebanda technology born in the U.S. military that can deliver huge amounts of data quickly over short distances. Ultrawideband, or UWB, would enable you to swap data between your digital camcorder and desktop computer. Or you could send signals from your digital cable box to portable flat panel displays scattered around your house. Whats more, youd be able to do so at speeds that are five to ten times faster than with Wi-Fi, now the dominant technology in wireless home networking.

There’s just one hitch: the FCC’s ultrawideband license, which was given to Motorola spinoff Freescale Semiconductor, applies only to one of two evenly matched rival formats vying to be the ultrawideband standard.

Standards wars are common in wireless technology, but this battle stands out for both its bitterness and its duration. And 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.

On September 13, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) will meet in Berlin to begin sorting through rival proposals for the new Wi-Fi, known officially as 802.11n (the Wi-Fi now in common use is 802.11b; a more advanced version just starting to be used is 802.11g). This next-generation Wi-Fi will be less power-efficient than ultrawideband, and may well be more prone to signal interference. On the other hand, it will work over longer distancesup to 90 meters compared to UWB’s 10 to 20 meters.

More importantly, the new version of Wi-Fi offers compatibility with the wireless networking technology that has spread rapidly in the last few years. 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. A delayed or split UWB standard could mean Wi-Fi will win the home entertainment networking market. That would leave UWB to battle it out with Bluetooth and other technologies for the significant, but less far-reaching role as a very-short-range cable replacement for PCs and consumer electronics. UWB should win that battle (and we’d all be thankful if someone would win it soon), but it may well miss out on a greater destiny as a multimedia networking technology for homes and offices.

Even if ultrawideband loses ground to Wi-Fi, though, the technology offers so many benefits that it’s unlikely to fade away. Unlike narrowband wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi, which beam signals within a defined frequency band, UWB scatters its transmissions over several gigahertz of the spectrum using short pulses. The broadband potential of UWB lies in the sophisticated transmission scheme, not in the strength of the transmitting technologythat’s why UWB transmitters can be simple devices that use very little electrical power. Moreover, due to its spectrum-scattered approach to communications, UWB is theoretically less susceptible to interference and offers an inherently more secure channel that is difficult to jam. Unlike with Wi-Fi, you could set up multiple independent UWB networks within the same household, so your PC-to-peripherals network won’t interfere with transmission between your cable set-top box and your TV.

Ultrawideband also offers an interesting extra: the ability to precisely identify the location of transmitters, conceivably down to the centimeter. This feature could open up a variety of applications where Wi-Fi is less suitable. For example, a wearable cardiac monitor endowed with a UWB transmitter could not only alert hospital workers to an emergency event, put pinpoint the patient’s location. Or a “smart highway” might someday be equipped with UWB transmitters posted at regular intervals to communicate with UWB-equipped cars and keep them moving in unison.

Yet before this illustrious future can be achieved, there’s a little thing called a standard to settle.

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