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Intel digs into wireless technology

The company is diving into a full-fledged research program for its ultrawideband technology, which uses the airwaves to carry data between computers.

Intel is diving into a full-fledged research program for its ultrawideband technology, which uses the airwaves to carry data between computers.

The Federal Communications Commission approved the wireless technology last week.

Ultrawideband, or UWB, has the potential to become a high-bandwidth wireless connection between computers or between computers and consumer-electronics devices such as digital cameras, said Kevin Kahn, co-director of Intel Labs' Communications Interconnect Technology Lab.

Kahn and his fellow Intel researchers think UWB shows enough promise for it to be put into use some time in the next five to seven years. Indeed, Intel Labs--which is the chipmaker's research arm and which studies processors, networking and user interfaces, among other things--is charged with identifying the new and important technologies that Intel might incorporate in its products.

UWB uses a different technique for transmitting data over radio waves than most radio communications use. It sends many short, sharp pulses of data over a wide frequency, allowing the transfer of large amounts of data over short distances using a relatively low amount of power. Most radio communications use a narrow, modulated frequency.

UWB is capable of transferring at speeds of between 400 and 500 mbps (megabits per second) over relatively short distances (about 15 feet), Intel said. Current wireless technologies, such as 802.11b, offer data rates of 10 mbps, but at distances of about 150 feet.

At those speeds, consumers could conceivably transfer digital stills or even video at practical speeds between PCs or other devices in the same home or office. While manufactures of radar had hoped UWB could be applied as an object-penetrating radar, such as for search and rescue, the technology's current, FCC-approved form does not have the power required to do this.

Because of its high bandwidth, UWB can offer the wireless equivalent of USB (universal serial bus) in speed. USB is wired connection for sharing data between computers and computer peripherals such as printers. The latest version, USB 2.0, is capable of 480 mbps.

UWB "could certainly do a replacement for something like USB for system interconnect," Kahn said. As an added benefit, "Data (transfer) rates would be high enough so that it could work with very large files."

Ultrawideband Another way to think about UWB is as the Bluetooth of the future. Bluetooth is short-range wireless communications technology aimed at eliminating cables for attaching devices such as PDAs (personal digital assistants) to a PC.

UWB could be third-generation Bluetooth, but with a fatter pipeline between devices. Bluetooth transfers data between devices up to 30 feet apart at up to 1 mbps.

Industry analysts such as Gartner's Martin Reynolds predict that UWB could debut at about 100 mbps within the next three of four years and increase from there.

Using UWB for devices such as a camera "would be neat," Reynolds said. "But the challenge will be getting all the software working."

"There are some usability things that have to be worked out," he said. For example, the company has to figure out how to let people control when and with whom they share their data. "It better be your camera, not everyone else's camera, that's downloading photos onto your PC," he joked.

But overall Reynolds was optimistic in his assessment of UWB.

"It's still in the research stages and it may well be eclipsed by other technologies, but it's promising," he said.

Intel's UWB vision
There are several other applications for the UWB technology in different industries. Aside from radar, they include using it to create radio-frequency tags that adhere to products and would track and locate inventory, and using it to help cars avoid accidents.

But Kahn said he believes it's better to focus on using UWB for communicating between devices, instead of networking PCs.

It is possible to use the technology to create grid networks, where several radios are placed in close proximity in a grid and work to pass data from one point to another, Intel said. As a result, data could be sent between people's workstations at high speed inside a company.

However, this approach is likely to be more costly than 802.11 networks, such as 802.11b, because of the need for multiple radios. The 802.11b technology, which can transfer data at up to 150 feet, also offers much greater range than UWB.

Intel said UWB might end up inside another chip. The chipmaker has been working to develop a program that will allow it to manufacture radios using its standard chipmaking technology, which goes by the acronym CMOS. Intel is expected to elaborate on these efforts at this month's Intel Developer Forum.

If these radios can be made using CMOS, the cost of manufacturing drops considerably because the company would be able to manufacture these radios on its existing factory lines. Also, radios made through this process could be integrated easily into chipsets or other components, which further cuts costs.

Indeed, UWB "looks like a technology that's friendly to implement in CMOS, which means in principle at least that it could be quite cheap," Kahn said. CMOS is Intel's standard chipmaking technology.

"We're not there today, but that's certainly the vision. That's where we would like to go," Kahn said.