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Ultra wideband to get first airing at CES

While a standards battle rages, first products will debut in Las Vegas.

Consumer electronics using ultra wideband, a powerful wireless technique rivaling Bluetooth and infrared, will debut at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas despite the ongoing stalemate over approving a standard.

The prototypes of cell phones, high-definition televisions, laptops and wireless access points using UWB, as it's more commonly known, should be available commercially by year's end, the manufacturers say.

Freescale Semiconductor, formerly a Motorola unit, and chipmaker Intel are backing competing blueprints for UWB that manufacturers will use to ensure compatible products. But neither side's proposals have gathered enough support from Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers members to be designated the standard. The IEEE subcommittee developing the UWB standard is expected to meet by month's end to try it again, but no one is expecting a breakthrough.

Unlike wireless technologies such as Bluetooth, 802.11b and 802.11a, which work in relatively narrow bandwidths, UWB operates over a wide range of frequency bands by sending very narrow and low-power pulses. Because it uses a broader spectrum, lower power and pulsed data, it is capable of delivering wire-level performance, making it suitable for electronics gizmos that require higher data transfer speeds. For instance, media players that can hold multiple MPEG-4 movies will require 1-gigabit-per-second UWB capability to transfer an entire movie in a few seconds.

But the release of products before a standard is clearly defined threatens to litter stores with incompatible products and stall the industry's development. However, history is strewn with products that debut sometimes years ahead of the standards' actual approval, according to Diane Orr, a spokeswoman for Freescale, whose UWB silicon is at the heart of the products being unveiled at the show, which starts Thursday.

Intel expects to see standards-based UWB products in late 2005 or early 2006, said spokeswoman Kari Skoog. "While there will be proprietary UWB implementations now and in the near future, it will take a few more months for all of the work to be completed to provide customers with a simple, effective and standards-based solution," Skoog added. "We believe that pre-standard products introduced now will generally be restricted to niche applications."

Freescale's Orr said said there was no time like the present.

"We think there's no danger," she said. "Even if there was a standard today, that wouldn't necessarily change what the market is doing."