Standards deadlock looms over UWB

There's little hope that a deadlock over an IEEE standard for UWB will be resolved before products hit the market, according to an industry exec.

A deadlock between competing camps over UWB (ultra wideband) could derail efforts to establish an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) standard for the short-range wireless technology, according to an executive familiar with the process.

An IEEE working group is working on a standard for UWB, which aims to provide a high-speed, short-range wireless link between a range of devices. However, the group's discussions have reached an impasse over two competing technologies and there is little hope for an early resolution to the deadlock, according to Jim Lansford, chief technology officer at Alereon, which is developing UWB chipsets.

One of the competing UWB technologies is backed by the WiMedia Alliance, which includes Alereon, Microsoft, Intel, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, and Sony, among others. The other technology is backed by the UWB Forum, which includes Freescale Semiconductor and Motorola among others.

"Because we could never reach a compromise, both camps have developed silicon [chips] and are pretty far along," Lansford said in a phone interview.

As a result, the cost and time required for either side to make changes to their products at this stage of development is "prohibitive," Lansford said. That means users will have to choose products that support one of two incompatible technologies when UWB-based products start to hit the market in small quantities later this year.

Lansford said the standards deadlock is not about which technology is better, but about which camp has the political clout to push through the adoption of their technology as the IEEE standard.

"We've created this odd mess where it looks like we're going to have to let the market decide," Lansford said. "Everybody's so entrenched [with their product plans]; there doesn't appear to be a good compromise."

One idea that has been floated during standards discussions is whether the two competing technologies could be rolled into a single chipset. However, this would greatly increase the cost of the chip. The technologies are so different that combining them onto a single piece of silicon means the size of the chip must be doubled, Lansford said. "There's really no economic reason to do that," he said.

With no resolution of the standards deadlock in sight, Alereon and others are betting that the relatively large number of industry heavyweights, including Microsoft and Intel, behind the WiMedia Alliance means this group's technology will be the one that users choose to adopt.

"At the end of the day, companies have to do what their customers are willing to buy," Lansford said, noting that Alereon had adopted the WiMedia Alliance's technology after initially backing a technology that was similar to that put forward by the UWB Forum.

With talks deadlocked and products set to begin shipping later this year, time is running out to set a UWB standard. "If this group can't come to a decision, the clock runs out," Lansford said, noting that its mandate lasts until next year.

If no standards decision is reached by that time, the working group will be dissolved automatically, he said.

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