The nascent market for high-performance, short-range wireless peripherals took another step forward as Freescale Semiconductor Inc. received certification from the Federal Communications Commission on Monday for its ultra wideband chip set.
According to industry analysts, some form of UWB (ultra wideband) wireless technology is expected to replace USB (Universal Serial Bus) as a peripheral connector for PCs and could enable a new generation of wireless devices.
With the approval by the feds, the company can ship its XS110 UWB chip set to peripheral vendors, who in turn are expected to release products incorporating the technology by the end of the year, a Freescale executive said. Although Freescale would not disclose its customer list, one of the early uses for the companys “direct-sequence” wireless approach will involve sending video content from a set-top box to an LCD or other display, he said.
The early approval gives a boost to Freescale, which spun off from Motorola Inc. earlier this year. Although the Freescale-led UWB Forum boasts more than 60 members, the group is going up against the Multiband OFDM Alliance, a group of companies backed by Intel Corp., Panasonic Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Texas Instruments Inc. and others, including seven of the Top 10 semiconductor manufacturers.
However, competition between the schemes continues since neither group has won approval from the IEEE; its 802.15.3a working group is responsible for coming up with an alternative physical layer for the UWB specification. The MBOA said in February that it plans to sidestep the IEEE regulatory process for the time being.
The FCC certification granted Monday covers Part 15 of the radio frequency rules, which mandates limits that are designed to protect users using unlicensed spectrum between 3.1GHz and 10.6GHz. Freescales XS110 chip set also adheres to another order that mandates operation at low-power levels to prevent interference with cell phones and GPS (Global Positioning System) devices.
“We are so far ahead on developing a silicon platform that is simple and cost-effective, [and] in a form factor that you can hold in your hand,” said John Adams, director of radio technology and strategy at Freescale, in Austin, Texas. “Having demonstrated this a year ago, and most recently at CES [the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas], UWB is real, its practical, and its here and now. The IEEE can take all the time it needs. We believe the market is real; its a real market, and it needs a solution now.”
According to Adams, XS110-powered devices will both transmit the highest number of bits per hour and outperform its competition in terms of power efficiency. The first generation of the products support throughput of 100M bps to 110M bps and the companys road map aims for speeds of 220M bps by the end of the year. A year from now Freescale hopes to deliver 480M bps and possibly even a 1G bps UWB chip sets, Adams said.
Initially, the technology will likely be used to transmit high-definition video signals, Adams said, followed by wireless connections between external media servers and hard drives.
“For me to put up a large display with a set-top box connected to it, I want the best quality, so I use DVI digital interface cables,” Adams said. “But a 5-meter DVI cable costs $140 or so. Its quite an expensive piece of wire. If I actually want to have flexibility in positioning my display, with a better wire, Im constrained by the high cost of cabling.”
Securing that content will likely be a layered affair, requiring more work, said Stephen Wood, a marketing manager for UWB at Intel, in Santa Clara, Calif. a member of the MBOA camp. The IEEE has mandated some simple AES 128-bit security provisions for UWB, but thats it, Adams said.
Meanwhile, the MBOA group has already won approval to run IEEE 1394 “FireWire” and USB protocols over its own UWB link, a step the Freescale-led group has not yet taken.
Representatives from the MBOA camp praised the FCCs decision as one that moves the entire UWB camp forward.
“In general, its good for UWB in the marketplace to have radios becoming certified,” said Eric Broockman, chief executive of Alereon Inc. in Austin. “The sooner the market comes, the sooner the benefit for UWB in replacing cable.”
However, Broockman characterized the Freescale efforts as “proprietary,” even though neither the direct-sequence UWB radio nor the MBOA proposal has been certified as a standard. The market clout of the MBOA backers gives his group the momentum, he said. “From my standpoint, MBOA is already a de facto standard,” he said.
For his part, Freescales Adams expects the market to “buy products, not promises.” “Were confident that we have the right technology as well as the right application of UWB,” he said. “We have a real solution; we dont require a relay rack, were not a company with nothing but PowerPoint slides in vast quantities or a demonstration system the size of a really large boat anchor. We have demonstrated a real system.”
Although he couldnt officially comment on behalf of other MBOA members, Broockman nevertheless said that the MBOA camp will see its own radios approved by the first quarter of 2005. Many of the companys engineers previously worked at TimeDomain Corp., a company with a UWB proposal that was passed over as an IEEE standard. However, TimeDomains radio was approved by the FCC in 2002.