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Ultra wideband may get wider

Motorola plans to bring a compromise offer to a Berlin meeting to break a standards stalemate.

Ultra wideband, a would-be competitor to Bluetooth, Zigbee, infrared and other short-range wireless technologies, is stuck in a standards stalemate that may not end anytime soon.

Rival proposals from an Intel-led group and Freescale Semiconductor, a subsidiary of Motorola, are expected to once again battle to a draw next week at a meeting of Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) members in Berlin, according to a recent poll showing 60 percent favor Freescale's proposal, short of the necessary 75 percent.

The schism threatens to create an initial wave of UWB products that don't interoperate. This could give consumers the sort of bad first impression the standards process was created to avoid.

To break the standards stalemate, Freescale UWB Director Martin Rofheart said the company will suggest next week that both proposals serve as the standard. He draws a parallel to Wi-Fi, the wireless technology in which there seem to be as many standards as there are letters in the alphabet. Ultimately, consumer buying patterns, not a standards body, decided which part of the alphabet soup was the most popular.

"Our sense, and the sense I get from the larger consumer electronics companies, is that they are beginning to see there's no way to have only one solution," Rofheart said. "But I don't think we'll be getting the appropriate 75 percent supermajority we'll need."

The shared approach is opposed by the MultiBand OFDM Alliance, which backs the competing proposal and whose members include Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Texas Instruments. Having a number of technologies instead of one serve as a standard belies "the whole notion of a standard," and will slow adoption, an Intel spokeswoman said.

UWB's tortured standards history is pock-marked with such events that have cumulatively delayed for years the introduction of the high-speed wireless technology. UWB was hailed as a Bluetooth killer when commercial use of the necessary airwaves was approved of by the Federal Communications Commission in 2002. To date, the FCC has approved one UWB product, a developer tool kit from Freescale.

Manufacturers say the first wave of UWB-enabled set-top boxes, flat-panel displays and PCI cards based on both proposed standards aren't expected in stores until spring 2005.

"The FCC compliance is significant since regulatory issues can cause slowdowns in even exciting new technologies," according to ABI Research director Alan Varghese.