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Ultrawideband partners merge

Longtime friends WiMedia and the Multiband OFDM Alliance team up, but rival UWB standards still wait in the wings.

Two of the major groups in ultrawideband development, the WiMedia Alliance and the Multiband OFDM Alliance, have merged.

The two industry bodies have been closely aligned for some time: Last April, WiMedia endorsed the Multiband OFDM Alliance's (MBOA) proposed standard for the high-speed wireless technology, and the groups shared the majority of their directors. The merger was announced at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco on Wednesday.

"Industry will benefit from a single strategic focus for specification definitions and regulatory organizations." said Kursat Kimyacioglu, director of wireless business development at Philips and a vice president of the WiMedia Alliance.

"The merged organization will have a single global UWB (ultrawideband) standard, and a single focal point for worldwide UWB spectrum regulations. It will be a single, open forum," Kimyacioglu added.

Unlike wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which work in a relatively narrow bandwidth, ultrawideband operates over a wide range of frequency bands by sending narrow and low-power pulses. Because it uses a broader spectrum, lower power and pulsed data, it is capable of delivering wirelike performance, making it suitable for consumer electronics gizmos that require higher data transfer speeds.

The WiMedia-MultiBand OFDM Alliance promises a tight schedule for the delivery of products, which are expected to start to appear later this year. "The physical layer specification will be delivered sometime this month, and the media access definition in May," said Kimyacioglu, referring to the two basic components of the UWB stack. "Toward the end of the year, we'll announce IP application profiles, as well as certification and interoperability programs."

The first products will be existing Firewire/IEEE 1394 and USB (universal serial bus) devices, modified to use UWB as a radio link over a couple of yards. "USB and 1394 are the most direct port of the easiest applications. A lot of people believe that long term, everything becomes IP, and over time that will end up dominating," said Kevin Kahn, senior fellow at Intel, which is a member of MBOA.

Jeff Ravencraft, technology strategist at Intel and chairman of the Wireless USB Promoter Group, said that consumer electronics companies "want UWB to replace cables and simplify set-up. Thirty percent of consumer electronics returns are because the consumer couldn't set up the equipment...The general consumer doesn't have a clue."

The merged body does not bring in any new members from the major rival UWB standard, DS-UWB. That group, led by Motorola and Freescale, has already demonstrated consumer devices using its technology, most recently with a Samsung mobile phone at the 3GSM trade show in Cannes, France last month, but the two groups remain incompatible.

Attempts to reach an agreement on a single UWB standard in the industry body tasked with that responsibility, IEEE 802.15 WPAN Task Group 3, have failed. Last month, U.S. company Pulselink announced a third incompatible variety of UWB, although this has yet to attract support from other companies.

Because of regulatory complications to do with what Kahn described as "a technical issue with measurement," MBOA's UWB standard is not currently approved by the Federal Communications Commission. "It's purely a technical violation of the rules; we're operating within the limits set by the FCC," Kahn said. "We expect to get a waiver very soon."

Rupert Goodwins of London's ZDNet UK reported from San Francisco.