Wireless Goes Wide

An old radio technology learns some new tricks.

Wireless data transfer may be the hottest trend in networking, but its newest tool is a 30-plus-year-old technology called ultrawideband.

Although the military has been developing the radio technology-which spreads signals out over a large swath of the radio spectrum rather than sending them at a single frequency-since its invention in the 1960s, the Federal Communications Commission only approved it for limited commercial use in February.

Ultrawideband promises low-power, high-speed data transfer-without the interference problems that plague existing wireless devices, since each transmission is sent in timed, subnanosecond bursts, and receivers ignore all but the in-sync signals. The same physics also gives ultrawideband properties useful for applications like “seeing” through walls and tracking objects in environments with too many obstacles for other radio technologies. A number of companies are gearing up plans for consumer applications.

This story is part of our June 2002 Issue
See the rest of the issue

“A lot of the systems that we have built for the government have immediate commercial interest as well,” says Robert Fontana, president of Multispectral Solutions, a Germantown, MD-based ultra-wideband company. One example: a wireless intercom built for navy aircraft could be retooled to deliver in-home audio and video. Multispectral Solutions and its competitors plan to manufacture circuits that will enable devices like TVs and speakers to communicate using ultrawideband; each of the companies says it has development partnerships with unnamed consumer electronics companies.

Analysts agree that home networking will initially be the biggest market for ultrawideband. The systems will transfer audio and video from camcorders to televisions and PCs, or from a set-top box in one room to a TV in another; or they’ll transfer audio from a stereo or DVD player to remote speakers. In order to comply with FCC regulations, initial systems will be limited to about a 10-meter range. Ultrawideband systems should offer both reduced interference and higher-bandwidth transmissions than technologies like Bluetooth. The first consumer products incorporating ultrawideband should hit store shelves in late 2003.

Consumer applications may quickly move beyond data transfer. “The interesting thing about this technology is that it can be used for different things that you may not necessarily group in one basket,” says Mike Wolf, an analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group. Multispectral Solutions and other companies plan eventually to take advantage of ultrawideband’s non-communications capabilities for security systems and location tracking. Eventually, ultrawideband may be able to accomplish what no other wireless technology has, becoming a dominant force in a whole range of applications.

Other Ultrawideband Companies

Company Applications
XtremeSpectrum (Vienna, VA) Home networking; data transfer
Time Domain (Huntsville, AL) Home networking; public safety
Pulse-Link (San Diego, CA) Home networking; location tracking; cellular communications
ther Wire and Location (Nicasio, CA) Location tracking (GPS supplement)

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Premium.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look: exclusive early access to important stories, before they’re available to anyone else

    Insider Conversations: listen in on in-depth calls between our editors and today’s thought leaders

You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.