Does UWB Deserve a Second Chance?

Mistake were made when hyping Ultra-wideband over the past few years. However, UWB may get a second chance as streaming media becomes more important and computers become more portable. I spent yesterday at the Portable Computer and Communications Association meeting in Austin learning about UWB as a wireless personal area network. I’m not a big believer in the technology so far, but was heartened by the admission of speakers who pointed out that the first implementations of the technology sucked.

UWB has its benefits. It’s low power and high bandwidth with theoretical limits of 480 Mbps over a really short distance. How short? With an external whip antenna you have to stand about a yard away to get the highest connection rates. With an embedded antenna, data rates are more than halved at around 150 Mbps, according to a presentation today from Dell. But at short range it’s a high enough speed to deliver decent video.

So while UWB backers are enthusiastic that the standard has gained the use of spectrum outside of the U.S. and since laptops from Dell, Toshiba and Lenovo are shipping with UWB chipsets for wireless USB, I’ll cede it the desktop, but I still believe widespread media streaming applications will depend on how well they do with the next generation of products coming out later this year. A demo from chipmaker WiQuest showing a Dell laptop connected via wireless USB to a jerry-rigged Samsung monitor won me over because it enables true wireless docking for a laptop. If mobile Internet devices take off, that could be something consumers find valuable. Next year wireless USB should find its way to mainstream monitors just in time for smaller, portable PCs.

The technology is designed for point-to-point wireless transfer. When compared to Wi-Fi, which was designed as a whole-home wireless technology to connect to the web, UWB is a hose to Wi-Fi’s swimming pool. This could make it a better option for use in cameras and for media players, but Wi-Fi is already in use in those markets. UWB also has a strong advantage because USB ports are already in most consumer devices, and wireless USB doesn’t require a lot of software changes for it to work. The best technology doesn’t always win, however, and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and eventually wireless HD standards are gunning for the same markets as UWB.

In the case of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, they’re already known consumer brands and embedded in a wide variety of devices. UWB needs to get its marketing machine together if they want to get off of the desktop and into cell phones, set-top boxes and other devices that could use a short-range, low-power, high-bandwidth technology.