A technology that promises to replace the cables behind TV sets and entertainment centers with wireless connections appears to be headed for a format war, after two industry organizations formally broke off their collaboration.
At a meeting in Hawaii on Thursday, the UWB Forum and the WiMedia Alliance voted to shut down a working group that sought to create a common standard for a radio technology known as ultra-wideband, or UWB.
Utilizing UWB allows data transmission at extremely high rates, more than enough for high-definition TV signals, at ranges up to 30 feet.
The UWB Forum — led by Motorola Corp. spinoff Freescale Semiconductor Inc. — and the WiMedia Alliance — supported by Samsung Electronics Co. and chip-makers Intel Corp. and Texas Instruments Inc. — had been trying to unite on a single standard since forming a task group with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 2003. The IEEE has been the umbrella group for a number of successful standards, including Wi-Fi.
Freescale got a head start on UWB in 2003 by buying Xtreme Spectrum, a company that already had a working prototype chip, and wanted that chip to be the basis of the standard.
At the same time, the WiMedia Alliance wanted to go in an entirely different direction. While Freescale’s chip sent out extremely rapid “clicks” of radio signals over a wide range of frequencies, the WiMedia Alliance wanted to use a method of dividing the spectrum into a large number of channels and transmitting over them simultaneously, almost like playing the piano with a finger on every key.
“After a year or so of arguing, unfortunately the thing started to become more personal,” said Roberto Aiello, chief technology officer of Staccato Communications Inc. and the secretary of the WiMedia Alliance. “We started to be more apart rather than closer to finding a solution.”
On the other side, Martin Rofheart, director of the UWB operation at Freescale, said the effort toward hammering out a common standard “has been stalemated for some time. We felt for our part that it wasn’t going to produce a specification that would be useful to the industry.”
The UWB Forum and Freescale are promoting a personal-computer-centered approach to introducing usage of UWB, emphasizing it as a replacement for the USB cables that connect computers with their peripherals. Rofheart said their Cable-Free USB standard is designed to work with existing computers and peripherals without requiring upgrades or new software.
Two products that use Cable-Free USB were announced at the Consumer Electronics Show this month by Belkin Corp. and Gefen Inc. Both packages consist of a small dongle that connect a laptop wirelessly to the other part of the package, a USB hub, where a printer, scanner, or other peripherals can be plugged in. They are expected to go on sale in a few months.
Freescale’s Rofheart said the technology can later be extended to work with consumer electronics, including TVs and stereos.
The first products using the WiMedia Alliance’s technology are expected by the end of the year, according to Aiello. Its use of UWB has been certified by another industry body, the USB Forum, and the products will carry the Certified Wireless USB logo.
The Certified Wireless USB products and the Cable-Free USB products will not be able to communicate, and may interfere with one another, according to Aiello.
Analyst Joyce Putscher at In-Stat noted that the WiMedia Alliance is going to continue to work with European engineering bodies, and could end up being a “de facto” standard without the IEEE.
“There is an advantage with the WiMedia flavor such that they can more easily avoid certain frequency bands,” Putscher said. That could help acceptance of the technology by foreign governments that wish to minimize interference with other devices.
In the United States, both approaches to utilizing the band have clearance from the Federal Communications Commission.