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UWB and USB to live happily ever after?

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UltraWideBand's prospects for becoming the dominant wireless technology for the home improved significantly this week, with Motorola poised to support a coexistence protocol that bridges the two rival would-be standards, and Intel demonstrating integration with wired USB.

The main brake on the adoption of UWB, which can achieve data rates of up to 440Mbps over 10 meters, has been the failure of the IEEE to settle on one of two alternatives - Motorola and the Intel/TI-led Multiband OFDM Alliance - to provide its 802.15.3a personal area networking standard. Start-up Pulse~Link has come up with a compromise that at least allows products incorporating the different UWB technologies to coexist peacefully, if not to interoperate. It seems that Motorola will offer that technology as an olive branch to its competitor.

Common Signalling Protocol

Unlike the MBOA, which was the front runner in the IEEE race and still believes it could provide the only standard, Motorola accepts that it is unlikely to be the exclusive UWB arbiter. While the market decides, and tests continue to probe Motorola's claims that the MBOA solution causes unacceptable interference, the giant will back Pulse~Link's Common Signalling Protocol as an interim solution. It will propose the physical layer technology at an ad hoc IEEE meeting in San Diego next Monday and expects to get support from Panasonic, Sharp, Sony and others.

Motorola also showed off its own UWB chipset, the first fruits of its acquisition last year of XtremeSpectrum, at the ISSC chip conference this week. Unlike other UWB silicon, this three-chip product is actually sampling now and will be fully available around midyear. Raj Sengottaiyan, Motorola's vice president of engineering at the semiconductor unit, was one of the most bullish speakers at the ISSC conference. The forum's general attitude to UWB was cautious, with many experts pointing to lack of standards, unproven or inconsistent data rates and the persistent issue of interference.

The Motorola chipset includes a baseband processor, a media access controller (MAC) with a 1394 interface, and the physical layer (PHY). It promises a 114Mbps data rate, and there is also the potential for a slower 57Mbps mode that would guarantee higher data integrity.

UWB silicon

Meanwhile, at its Developer Forum, Intel was demonstrating its first UWB silicon - based on the MBOA specifications - and aiming to set yet another standard for the digital home market where its chief ambitions lie in 2004. This would be a combined UWB and USB I/O architecture for fast multimedia interconnects between consumer electronics gear. This comes with the inevitable industry alliance of supporting vendors to promote and certify the technology and give it the outer veneer of a real standard, containing many of the companies involved in the USB 2.0 wired technology.

The Wireless USB specification will support data rates of 480Mbps over four meters and 110Mbps over 10 meters, including new streaming enhancements recently added to wired USB 2.0. Intel says it could be the first multimedia interconnect to be backed by the whole spectrum of electronics suppliers from PC makers to consumer media devices and digital cameras.

Ubiquitous standard

The new specification will be based on the MBOA's UWB technology, and is seen as another way that the Alliance plans to ensure that its approach to fast wireless becomes ubiquitous. It will take the form of a USB platform adaptation layer running on top of the UWB silicon, and there will also be a variant for 1394 Firewire. Eventually, a third layer will be designed in, optimised for quality of service for multimedia IP traffic.

The spec will also support the radio platform defined by the WiMedia Alliance, which is dedicated to interoperability among all IEEE 802.15.3 wireless personal area networking standards. These include UWB and the original 802.15.3, which transfers data at 55Mbps in the 2.4GHz band. Intel is expected to join this industry group shortly, and the Alliance is widely predicted to become a key supporter of the MBOA technologies, in effect taking the role for that protocol that the Wi-Fi Alliance does for 802.11x.

Systems using Wireless USB should ship in early 2005. The technology will be at loggerheads with another current development - USB On-The-Go - a wireless version that uses USB 1.2 extensions to transfer data between devices in a peer-to-peer fashion.

© Copyright 2004 Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of events that have happened each week in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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