FCC OKs Limited Ultra-Wideband Technology

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday gave a conditional go-ahead to companies seeking to market products employing ultra-wideband technology.

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday gave a conditional go-ahead to companies seeking to market products employing ultra-wideband (UWB) technology.

UWB operates by releasing many small bursts of radio signals at very high speeds over a wide radio spectrum, rather than, as more established wireless technologies do, issuing a protracted signal over a limited frequency range.

Proponents claim a variety of potential consumer, business and safety uses for UWB, from virtually interference free, energy-efficient, super high-speed voice and data transmission, to devices that could enhance public safety with highly accurate imaging and location capabilities.

For example, law enforcement and rescue workers could use UWB to find people trapped under debris or held hostage behind walls. Engineers could locate structural defects in various edifices. And automobile companies could use UWB for enhanced collision avoidance applications.

The FCC, in a written statement accompanying its "First Report and Order," agreed UWB has potential, and seemed to reject some claims that it could create dangerous interference. "With appropriate technical standards, UWB devices can operate using spectrum occupied by existing radio services without causing interference, thereby permitting scarce spectrum resources to be used more efficiently," the Commission said.

Since there is little "operational experience" with the technology, however, the FCC said it would "err on the side of conservatism in setting emission limits when there were unresolved interference issues." The FCC also said it would "act vigorously to enforce the rules and act quickly on any reports of interference." It will also review its standards for UWB devices in the next six to twelve months, in the interest of making the standards more flexible.

"Were very pleased by todays decision, we went from being illegal to legal today," said Jeff Ross, vice president for corporate development and strategy at Time Domain, a Huntsville, Alabama company that has been pitching UWB to the FCC since 1987.

Ross said his company is awaiting the final specifications accompanying Thursdays FCC announcement before being able to discern all of the implications for potential products, but, "based upon what they have put out there today, I think its a good positive step forward, its going to allow us to get some products to market." He said Time Domain expects to have a chipset out in the next couple of months, and products from its partners out "hopefully by the end of the year."

"The biggest thing this technology will be used for," said Ross, "is indoor, short-range, high-data rate communications," such as Personal Area Networks and Device Area Networks. At 100 Mbs per second, over short distance, probably within a room, Ross said. "I think youll see it first within the consumer market."

UWB opponents however, particularly in the aviation industry, have charged that new UWB devices could disrupt global positioning systems and other airborne safety devices if operating in a frequency range under 6 Ghz, what the Air Transport Association of America (ATA) labels the "safety-of-life spectrum."

The FCCs decision Thursday allows some UWB technologies to fall below that threshold.

"No level or amount of interference - no matter how weak, intermittent or infrequent - is acceptable for aviation," said the ATA President and CEO Carol Hallett in a prepared statement a few days before the FCCs decision. "It is of paramount importance for the FCC to ensure that UWB technologies avoid any interference with transmissions in restricted spectrum bands. Anything else significantly threatens aviation safety - a risk too great to impose on the public."

ATA officials were not immediately for comment on Thursday. However, they have cited previous government practice, dating back to the Communications Act of 1934, to place the burden of proof on those promoting new UWB devices.

"We firmly take the position that the burden to demonstrate that a proposed unlicensed device will not cause harmful interference to authorized aviation technologies lies with the device proponent," said Hallet, in a prepared statement.

Ross rebutted these concerns by comparing UWB technology to laptops and handhelds in use today. "There are already billions of devices operating . . . at 2000 times greater power than what they authorized for ultra-wideband today," he said, "and with those billions of devices out in those bands, and there havent been any problems to the GPS system, there certainly cant be any problem with ultra-wideband operating at 2000 times lower. Its almost silly."

Ross charged that many alarms about UWB are being raised for competitive reasons, but at the same time he downplayed UWBs potential to undercut existing technologies. He said, for example, that GPS and UWB are actually "complementary" location technologies.

And to those who think UWB will undercut Bluetooth, the emergent wireless standard for data transmission, he argued that each would lead in totally different directions for applications. At 100 Mbs per second, with position-location and high spatial-capacity without interference for UWB, compared to 720 Kbs for Bluetooth data transmission from laptops and other devices, he said, "it would be like having a laser when all you need is a pocketknife."