Setbacks for the development of ultra-wideband wireless technologies
Technology magazine EE Times reports that, on Monday in a surprise move, chip manufacturer Intel closed its development department for short-range ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless technologies. UWB technology allows external hard disks, cameras or printers to communicate with a PC via wireless USB at speeds of up to 480 Mbits/s. Intel has been regarded as the driving force behind the WiMedia Alliance, the umbrella organisation, whose UWB wireless is the basis for the Certified Wireless USB standard.
The most promising startup in the UWB sector, WiQuest, heralded by some observers as the representative for this entire branch of the industry, closed its doors a few days earlier. WiQuest chipsets powered the "Certified Wireless USB" option in some notebooks by Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba as well as UWB hubs by Belkin and D-Link. Todd A. Brown, vice president of worldwide sales at WiQuest said just one per cent of all notebooks come equipped for UWB, while five to ten per cent would have been needed to constitute critical mass.
UWB has the typical problems that hinder uptake of all new wireless technologies, being too expensive and too power hungry. The same issues have prevented chipsets from other UWB manufacturers from being deployed more widely. Wi-Fi chips for notebooks have a price below $5 and a power consumption below 300 mW, and OEM vendors expected similar specifications for UWB. The snag is that current UWB chips require three times as much. A WiQuest single-chip device scheduled for 2009 was supposed to solve both problems, but then the money ran out. A bigger indicator of UWB's troubles is Intel's withdrawal; it is unlikely to be because of a lack of funds.
UWB has been struggling against serious problems for years, which both Intel and WiQuest had to contend against. Vendors like Alereon, Staccato or WisAir have repeatedly scheduled market-ready UWB devices "for the coming year". That two significant players have now retreated does not necessarily improve the position of the remaining competitors. The Wimedia Alliance trade body has been unable to create the agreement necessary to create a single, unified standard for wireless USB, although it has managed to whittle down 23 different proposals to just two: MB-OFDM and DS-UWB. Unfortunately, these two, while offering similar speed, robustness, power consumption and cost, are mutually incompatible, and neither has managed to win the 75 per cent of the vote that it needs.
Despite the absence of a finished standard, Wi-Fi manufacturers have managed to agree to a standard based on a draft version of the 802.11n IEEE standard and are building and selling compatible devices. These deliver 100 Mbits/s and are likely to double this rate in the coming months. This speed is sufficient for exactly the applications that UWB was designed for.
If UWB development continues to drag along, ultra-wideband might end up marginalised by other wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi or high-speed Bluetooth. There are specialised roles for UWB that its rivals are not targeting, such as providing HDMI monitor connectivity, but this would be a small niche for what was a technology that promised a lot more.