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New tech could revolutionize wireless industry

A patent dispute that had held up the development of a potentially powerful new wireless technology finally winds to an acrimonious close.

A patent dispute that had held up the development of a potentially powerful new wireless technology has finally wound to an acrimonious close.

For the past two years, a small Alabama company called Time Domain and Lawrence Livermore Labs in California have been fighting over ownership of a technology called "ultra-wideband wireless." The close of the patent dispute removes one of the last barriers in the path toward commercial development of the high-speed technology.

The technology has the potential to radically change wireless systems and how they are used. Yet since ultra-wideband is still quite new, analysts say its direct effect on today's wireless phone industry is unclear. Moreover, it may be some time before ultra-wideband technology makes a significant mark, as it still faces a number of technological and regulatory hurdles.

Both Time Domain executives and lab officials are claiming a sort of victory in the patent dispute. Livermore, which was challenged in its rights to the ultra-wideband patent, gets to retain use of the patent limited to its radar applications. Time Domain is now free to commercialize its communications-related systems based on ultra-wideband technology.

The potential uses for the technology are many, with some seemingly drawn from science fiction. Aside from its obvious uses for high-speed wireless data communications, ultra-wideband has been touted as possibly an effective way to link PCs and televisions in a home.

Even more ambitious uses are being formulated. The military already uses an early version of the system in a device that can pinpoint troops in the field, much like a global positioning system (GPS). Additionally, ultra-wideband is being tested for use as a radar system, to possibly allow firefighters to "see" behind doors to locate victims during a fire.

"It's one of those very rare technology changes that bring really interesting potential in several dimensions," said Paul Turner, a technology analyst with PricewaterhouseCoopers Technology Center.

The many possibilities with ultra-wideband have attracted the attention of companies like MCI WorldCom and German networking firm Siemens, as well as an increasing number of venture capitalists.

Ultra-wideband technology, largely as used by Time Domain, takes a new approach to wireless communications, which scientists say could open new capacity in the over-strained airwaves.

Traditional wireless communications, like cell phones, use just a small piece of the wireless frequency available to send voice or data transmissions. That stream of information is sent like a laser beam to its destination, a constant stream of information that is tightly focused.

By contrast, ultra-wideband technology sends signals across a huge swath of wireless frequency, similar to light that radiates from a light bulb, rather than a focused laser beam. Additionally, instead of a constant stream of information, ultra-wideband sends tiny pulses of data in a way that proves much more efficient than transmissions from a traditional mobile phone.

But the patent dispute, along with regulatory questions, has slowed commercial development of the technology.

Now that the patent dispute is cleared, regulatory concerns could still hamper the development of applications for ultra-wideband technology. Officials at the Federal Communications Commission are concerned that the wireless spectrum used by ultra-wideband could pose potential security risks. Because the technology bleeds into areas of the airwaves that federal regulators use for safety and air-traffic control functions, ultra-wideband is largely illegal for use on a commercial basis.

Time Domain has worked on applications for this for several years, and has sold devices that use the technology to military customers. Similarly, the company has developed a radar-like device, dubbed RadarVision, that will allow a user to scan through walls to see people or objects on the other side.

Recently, Time Domain has developed a wireless cable TV system that allows users to move their TV anywhere in a home and still get a crystal-clear picture.

Other applications can be developed and marketed by partners such as Siemens, which recently took a $5 million stake in the company, Time Domain CEO Ralph Petroff says.

"Our game plan is to be something like Intel," Petroff said. "We'll sell the chips that other people put in their devices, rather than making everything ourselves."

But for that to become a reality, federal regulators need to be convinced that the technology will work and that it won't interfere with existing radio, TV and other wireless communications.

"It is my hope that we can initiate…a proceeding within the next few months, with the goal of completing our study during the next year," said FCC commissioner Susan Ness at a recent conference on ultra-wideband technology. Because of its unusual use of the airwaves and its wide-ranging potential, the technology poses "unique technological and regulatory challenges," Ness said.

Time Domain is already speaking with companies overseas and in the United States, hoping to have applications like the wireless TV and others ready the moment the FCC decides. It is also working on international contracts where regulatory concerns aren't as limiting, the company said.

If regulatory concerns are settled, the technology will likely take off in unexpected new directions, analysts say.

"With radically new technology, the first applications tend to be fairly pedestrian," PricewaterhouseCoopers' Turner said. "Then it takes off in completely new ways."