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Ultra Wideband's Ultrawide Ambition

We've been hearing about Ultra Wideband (UWB) for years. Once hyped as a way to achieve much higher data rates than today's Wi-Fi networks, it's the most controversial technology in wireless networking, thanks to the way it uses spectrum. Still illegal in most of the world, the FCC has approved it for use in the United States, and the first products are on the way.

But don't get too excited. Because UWB broadcasts on almost all radio frequencies at once, rather than sticking to an assigned band like most wireless technologies, the FCC has limited its power output to reduce interference. This in turn reduces its range, with the exact figure depending on the data rate. If you only need few Kbps, it can go up to 100 feet. If you need a full Gbps, it can only travel a tenth as far.

Even worse, squabbling vendors have been unable to agree on a standard. The Intel-led WiMedia Alliance looks set to be the main standards body, as its specification has been adopted by most of the PC industry. But there's also a rival group, the Motorola-led UWB Forum, which is targeting cell phones and could be important internationally. Both have demonstrated hardware and announced products due later this year, but these won't be interoperable with each other.

The first applications for both standards will be consumer-focused--for example, beaming photos from digital cameras, music to MP3 players, and home movies from cell phones. But many vendors in the WiMedia Alliance also plan enterprise applications, including peer-to-peer file transfer and wireless links from laptops to overhead projectors. It even opens up the prospect of interoperability in new areas, such as laptop docking stations. Instead of needing a proprietary interface customized to a particular laptop make or model, users will be able to connect to any WiMedia monitor and port replicator.


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