Is ultrawideband too wide?

The satellite industry and its TV and cable customers say the short-range wireless standard threatens to interfere with many of their broadcasts.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
The satellite industry and its TV and cable customers say a short-range wireless standard called ultrawideband threatens to interfere with many of their broadcasts.

Ultrawideband, better known as UWB, is something the wireless industry has never dealt with before. Wireless devices almost always operate in a narrow band of spectrum. Interference from signals crossing paths is avoided by assigning each wireless broadcast a certain area of the airwaves.

But UWB operates across a wide range of these so-called frequencies all at once. The "flooding" of the airwaves creates a short but powerful signal--about 100 times faster than Bluetooth, another short-range wireless standard.

Beginning last February, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) let a handful of UWB start-up companies, plus tech heavyweights Intel, Cisco Systems and Texas Instruments, make UWB devices that use the same spectrum satellite companies use. Some of the products are just now being shipped to stores.

But the new neighbors are starting to chafe as they rub bandwidth shoulders, just as the first commercial UWB products are being shipped. A number of satellite companies and their customers, including AOL Time Warner and Viacom, have raised concerns about interference in the past few days. The broadcast TV and cable arms of AOL Time Warner and Viacom use satellites to ferry programming to customers worldwide.

Recent FCC filings made reference to two studies published last month that found UWB poses some interference problems, especially when used outdoors, the companies said. One study was conducted by the Satellite Industry Association, which represents Lockheed Martin, PanAmSat and other aerospace equipment makers.

The second investigation was published by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

"Widespread deployment of UWB devices under current technical rules could cause significant disruption to video programming distribution," Steven Teplitz, an AOL Time Warner vice president, wrote to the FCC last week. Viacom filed a similar letter with the same complaints.

Companies supporting ultrawideband, such as chipmaker XtremeSpectrum, say the interference concerns are overblown. The issue could come to a head next week, when the FCC discusses the rules it created last January for UWB.

"The (Satellite Industry Association) has greatly overestimated the effect of handheld UWB systems," John McCorkle, XtremeSpectrum's chief technology officer, wrote to the FCC last week.

Ben Manny, Intel's director of wireless technology development, also played down the impact of UWB on satellites or any other kinds of devices.

He said interference is highly unlikely, but if it were to occur, it would probably create the same level of annoyance as everyday mishaps such as "when I drape my phone cord over my PC."

If UWB survives this latest challenge, analysts say the technology has potential--especially for the TV industry, which needs to find more bandwidth in its networks to meet a 2005 federal mandate to begin broadcasting bandwidth-sucking HDTV signals.

An XtremeSpectrum representative said the first products that will be UWB-enabled "will likely be large screen displays for home theaters, set-top boxes, DVDs and DVRs." Cisco and TI are interested in UWB and have invested in XtremeSpectrum.

Intel's Manny said his company is talking with most "major electronics device makers" about adding UWB into their devices. But he refused to provide additional details.

"Clearly, Intel is interested in this because of the value it adds to existing products," he said.