Bluetooth set to take over wireless from Wi-Fi... IEEE abandons the fight for UWB

Comment The IEEE has abandoned its effort to create a UWB standard, but has agreed on a draft for the next generation of WiFi, 802.11n. The conventional wisdom is that this week's events are great news for Wi-Fi, and a disaster for Ultra-Wide Band, UWB, and by association, Bluetooth. In fact, the exact opposite is likely to be the judgment of the future.

Who was surprised when the IEEE abandoned an attempt to define the ultra-wide band wireless standard? Amazingly, lots of people. "Why haven't you covered this? It's your area of expertise!" complained a reader. "Is it news?" I asked, astonished. Apparently, it was.

But it was only news if you weren't studying UWB. Insiders knew it was coming. It's been a horrible mess for more than three years now; politics, power groups, competing technologies which are completely incompatible, and confident statements by chief technology officers which have all proved to be cobblers. And I don't mean technical cobblers: I mean, nonsense in the field of commercial reality.

The technology is not a mystery any more. There are several ways of doing UWB; the trouble is, you can't make them all part of the same standard. And the reasons aren't simple, but if you want to simplify them a bit, you could say that there are issues of power, data speed, and carrier material - because UWB isn't just a wireless technology: it can be used down fibre, too.

Ultra-wide band wireless is close to being magic. It's the ultimate expression of technology advances in the last twenty years - which is to say, it's the exact opposite of how radio has worked ever since different wavebands started being allocated to individual transmitters. Those early radios tried to reach all around the world on one frequency, so it was very important not to have two transmitters on the same frequency. So the technology originally focused on getting the band narrower and narrower.

Ultra-wide band uses the whole damn spectrum, everything from (relatively) long waves in the microwave area, right up to stuff approaching the visible spectrum. The cost is that you have to make sure you don't send the signal very far. Easy: you use virtually no power at all, and indeed, most designs of UWB are quieter than ordinary cosmic background noise.

Where UWB scores, is in sheer data speed. Because you can use the whole spread, you can shove an awful lot of bits through it. Short range, but fast. Bluetooth is also short range, mostly in order to save power. But Bluetooth gives you just a couple of megabits. In the same distance UWB could give you half a gig - which is, of course, why the Bluetooth people think they will use UWB technology in the future.

That's going to carry on. Or, to quote Engadget's Evan Bliss, "According to Michael Foley executive director of the SIG, they will work with whichever flavour of UWB triumphs in the market to ensure interoperability with Bluetooth."

But it's not market driven; the SIG will nudge things. It "will essentially pick one side over the other in helping the market determine the most advantageous solution."

Can the Special Interest Group really muster that sort of muscle? Track record: yes. The SIG has been taking a PR caning for the last four years, mostly from bleeding-edge fans who wanted to see faster, longer range technology. The SIG has simply refused to be rushed; it's taken the view that what the market wants is a stable standard, not something which makes exciting headlines for a day, but puzzles retailers for a year. Meanwhile, what about Wi-Fi?

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