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US West invests in new wireless technology

The local phone giant takes a stake in wireless technology start-up Time Domain, a firm with technology that some say could help radically speed wireless Net access.

Local phone giant US West said today it has taken a stake in wireless technology start-up Time Domain, a firm with technology that some say could help radically speed wireless Net access.

The small Alabama company is a leader in so-called ultrawideband technology, which uses the wireless airwaves for high-speed connections in a very different way than do most traditional mobile phone or home networking technologies. The result, the company says, is far more efficient use of the wireless spectrum, along with faster downloads.

The technology isn't yet legal to use commercially in the United States because it overlaps with parts of the wireless spectrum used by police and public safety radios. But federal regulators are in the midst of a process aimed at legalizing it and have pointed to the technology as a possible way to ease wireless traffic jams.

Ultrawideband transmissions can be used for such improbable applications as a super-accurate global positioning system and a radar system that can see through walls. But US West said it was primarily interested in exploring Time Domain's ability to supplement its existing wireless business.

"We don't know what the potential is or isn't," said Ophyll D'Costa, head of US West Internet Ventures. "That's what we'll find out when we test."

The investment marks a strong endorsement for Time Domain, which has struggled to convince partners and investors in recent years that it has a viable technology, despite patent battles and looming regulatory questions.

The ultrawideband technology has been under development for years and is waiting for approval by the Federal Communications Commission, the company has said.

Already, the U.S. military uses radios that make use of the company's technology, as it allows transmissions to be almost completely untraceable.

Since the close of a patent battle with Lawrence Livermore Labs last year, the company has gained more investment and a dizzying breadth of partnerships, ranging from power tools companies to a golf firm that wants to use the positioning features to determine the exact distance from tee to hole on golf courses.

But US West is the first major communications company to invest, with ambitions to use the service in the field. And the endorsement could push Time Domain in directions it originally had eschewed.

CEO Ralph Petroff has consistently said he wants to invent new applications rather than compete with huge existing businesses. In the wireless communications realm, that has meant going with home networking rather than seeking to supercharge mobile phones. The company already has prototypes in its lab that provide high-speed links for televisions and personal computers.

D'Costa said US West will test the technology on a wider basis, looking to see if it is a feasible way to offer mobile phone-style wireless service in addition to simple indoor use.

If successful, the tests could go a long way toward reaching the goals of FCC chairman William Kennard, who last week launched a campaign to help free up wireless spectrum, citing in part new technologies such as ultrawideband.

"All of the new technologies--mobile phones, faxes, wireless computers--are consuming spectrum faster than we can make it available, and we are in danger of a spectrum drought," Kennard warned.

US West would not specify the amount of its investment in Time Domain other than to say it is a minority ownership stake of less than 5 percent. The total funds invested are less than $10 million, the company said.

The phone carrier joins German giant Siemens, which recently invested $5 million in the start-up, as a shareholder in Time Domain.