Dubbed "ultrawideband" wireless, the technology has been caught in regulatory and patent battles for the past several years, clouding its future even as prototypes have made leaps in high-speed wireless data rates and other, more ambitious uses.
Those patent issues largely disappeared late last year. Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission gave a tentative thumbs-up to the technology's use, pending one more round of tests and comments from the industry.
"We were very cautious on a lot of the proposals we made," said John Reed, a staff member in the FCC's office of engineering and technology. "We asked a lot of questions and asked for a lot of comments."
Ultrawideband is one of several technologies floating just outside the fringes of mainstream networking. It holds the promise of dramatically reducing the pressure on the wireless spectrum that carries mobile phone voice conversations and, increasingly, data transmissions.
Already some of the big cell phone companies have found themselves at capacity in some markets, angering customers who find themselves occasionally unable to use their phones. This problem will only get worse as applications such as high-speed Internet access move into the wireless realm.
FCC chairman William Kennard has identified this problem of scarce spectrum as one of the most critical issues facing the wireless industry, and he has asked companies to do whatever they can to address it technologically. The commission said yesterday that ultrawideband could help reduce this pressure.
"(The) devices appear to be able to operate on spectrum already occupied by existing radio services without causing interference," the regulators said in a statement. "It could permit scarce spectrum resources to be used more efficiently, a core responsibility of the commission in its role as the nation's spectrum manager."
Yesterday's unanimous FCC action marks a critical step forward for the technology's backers.
"This is a tremendous validation," said Ralph Petroff, CEO of Time Domain, one of the companies that has led development in ultrawideband. "For years the question was always if this is approved by the FCC. Now that's morphed into when it's approved."
The technology differs from traditional wireless communications in both its use of the spectrum and in the different capabilities of the transmissions.
Most cell phones use a small slice of wireless "airwaves" to send their information. By contrast, ultrawideband sends signals across a huge swath of the spectrum, but at power so low that it can't be distinguished from the background static except by the receiver at which it's pointed.
This works best at short distances, Petroff said. Time Domain is initially aiming at the home networking market, where televisions, computers and stereos can all be hooked to a wireless connection indoors. A prototype version of the company's chip already allows transmissions of about 40MB/sec, far faster than existing products, he added.
Security is good as well. The U.S. military already uses a communications handset created by Time Domain because the transmissions cannot be pinpointed or tapped as easily as traditional mobile services.
The technology allows a range of science fiction-like applications. Initially, the services were created as radar tools, which can see through walls when traditional radar is blocked. That could allow such things as devices allowing firefighters to see who or what is in burning buildings or helping rescue workers find earthquake victims trapped underneath rubble.
It also acts as a positioning device far more accurate than ordinary global positioning services. Time Domain has signed a deal with a golf company that plans to use the technology to give golfers exact measurements from tee to hole. That application could be used to keep track of children in crowds or find lost pets, Petroff predicted.
Analysts have called ultrawideband "one of those very rare technology changes that bring really interesting potential in several dimensions."
There's still a long way to go before products hit the markets, however.
The FCC is asking for a few more tests before it gives its final approval for the technology to be used. Those tests will be due to regulators by Oct. 30. The FCC's Reed said the process for final approval will likely stretch on at least until early next year.