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.

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“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)
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