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Wireless chips take their first steps

Chips using the very powerful, and controversial, ultrawideband wireless technique are on their way for testing by device makers.

Some of the first integrated circuits that create a wireless network using the very powerful, and controversial, ultrawideband wireless technique are on their way for testing by device makers.

UWB chipmaker XtremeSpectrum said Friday it has begun shipping to several electronics companies batches of UWB chips that send video and audio wirelessly between devices.

Other chipmakers are expected to follow with their own versions of UWB chips, likely in the next few months. XtremeSpectrum is the first, however, to supply manufacturers with "evaluation kits" that consist of chips and software device makers will use to decide whether to use UWB in their devices, Vice President Chris Fisher said.

"We expect products by Christmas of 2003," Fisher said. He declined to name the companies that will get the chips.

Analysts say the UWB technology has potential, especially for the television industry, which needs to find more bandwidth in its networks to meet a 2005 federal mandate to broadcast bandwidth-sucking HDTV (high-definition television) signals.

"It'll get more bang for your buck out of the existing cable band," said David Hoover, an analyst with research company Precursor Group.

Ultrawideband creates a wireless network capable of a 100 megabit-per-second round-trip between devices that are about 30 feet apart. XtremeSpectrum demonstrated recently that with its chip, UWB's signal can simultaneously send six different digital-television signals to six TVs.

UWB signals are short, powerful bursts of energy that travel through what is essentially a radio signal's "no man's land" that the Federal Communications Commission set aside in every swath of spectrum. The FCC-created dumping ground is meant for the weak radio signals most electronic devices unintentionally create when in operation.

Five months ago the FCC gave permission for ultrawideband to operate commercially, assigning it the "noise floors" in a huge swath of spectrum, between 3.1GHz and 10.6GHz.

Competition on the airwaves
The 30-foot range of its signal eliminates UWB as a candidate to dominate home networking standards like 802.11, known as Wi-Fi, which offers a range of about 300 feet. But UWB companies haven't given up hope. Some are working on devices to boost the UWB signal enough to cover the inside of a house.

UWB is fighting a more immediate battle for space in devices considered part of someone's "personal area network," or PAN, such as phones, pagers, keyboards and PDAs (personal digital assistants). Bluetooth, another wireless standard, is the leader for PAN devices so far, with products just now entering the market. Microsoft, Apple and others have said they will use Bluetooth in their future devices.

While Bluetooth is inexpensive and doesn't need much power to operate, it doesn't shuttle information as quickly as UWB. There are ongoing efforts to get Bluetooth to work at 10 megabits per second, about a tenth of what UWB makers claim their equipment accomplishes.

Fisher declined to comment on future product plans. The start-up's backers include Sony, Cisco Systems and Texas Instruments, all of which have indicated they intend to use UWB in future products.