What’s With Ultra-Wideband?
John Santhoff, CTO of Pulse~Link Inc., puts his hand over the upper left corner of the 42-inch Westinghouse flat-panel high-definition TV set, then moves it to the upper right corner. The picture fades slightly, so Santhoff knows that is where the manufacturer has put the Ultra-Wideband antenna in this set. Until he cups his palm directly over this antenna, built into the unit and thus impeding the signal, there was no indication that this TV set is getting its input from a UWB transmitter (fed by a DVD player and set-top box) about 30 feet across the room.
| Pulse~Link’s CWave Whole-Home coverage links display devices throughout the home.|
Pulse~Link and customers of its CWave UWB semiconductors, such as Westinghouse and electronics accessories maker Gefen Inc., are expecting final technical approvals in August, which means UWB-equipped TV sets will be on the market by September. The prototypes that Santhoff is testing at his company’s Carlsbad, Calif., headquarters are the first phalanx of wireless personal area network (WPAN) products.
“For the first time, a viable technology exists that enables whole-home distribution,” said Santhoff, who is also a Pulse~Link founder. “A lot has been tried, but [nothing was] able to deliver all-use scenarios.”
Pulse~Link’s CWave chipset can handle an actual data throughput of up to 1 Gbps, which it claims is the highest-performing UWB solution. The company is counting on this capacity, coupled with the acceptance of home networks, to accelerate its business.
Santhoff is not alone in his expectation that UWB is ready for its home debut; it arrives exactly one decade after the FCC issued its original 1998 notice of inquiry into the use of the unlicensed short-range wireless technology. Early this spring, Monster Cable Products unveiled its first UWB package, which transmits HD video and sound from a DVD player or STB to a TV set up to 30 feet away. Noel Lee, president of Monster, which is known for its high-end cables, joshed that the unwired UWB devices marked his company’s first appearance as “Monster Cable-less.”
The aesthetic appeal of wireless delivery is growing as families hang flat-panel displays on their walls and don’t want to see dangling wires and cables. That UWB solutions are coming from sources as diverse as low-priced Westinghouse and high-end Monster indicates the opportunities that UWB may bring into the home.
The industry group WiMedia Alliance certified four UWB platforms in May, bringing the lineup of WiMedia-certified wireless platforms to 23. That’s about double the number of certified platforms in October 2007, when the process was initiated. The alliance wants to assure users that UWB technology is standardized and has multivendor interoperability.
Comforting customers may be essential. The slow arrival of UWB has given developers of Bluetooth technology time to bulk up their wireless connection capabilities. At a European wireless conference early this year, several members of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group introduced “Bluetooth over Wi-Fi,” which bumped up the capabilities of their technology. Although Bluetooth cannot yet match UWB’s capacity to transmit high-definition video or other content-rich signals, the Bluetooth backers are working on an advanced “Alternate MAC/PHY’ architecture (Medium Access + Physical layer). They expect to work through a two-phase approach during the coming years, potentially giving UWB a challenge if its developers don’t move quickly.UPBEAT EXPECTATIONS
New York-based ABI Research does not expect the Bluetooth advances will have any impact on the timing of the UWB market. A recent ABI study concludes that UWB “remains set” to be delivered on a large scale during the next 18 months, although ABO focuses on mobile applications where UWB competes more directly with beefed-up Bluetooth.
Nonetheless, if the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth collaboration succeeds, it may pave the way for greater UWB acceptance.
“The inclusion of 802.11 inside the realm of Bluetooth can only attract more consumers, thereby setting the stage for UWB’s implementation to attain its full potential in the coming years,” said ABI Research Senior Analyst Douglas McEuen.
A separate study, “Ultra-wideband: Technology, Applications, and Solutions” by Mind Commerce Publishing cites the opportunities for UWB, especially in its ability to handle “multiple streams of digital video, such as HDTV, with a quality level equivalent to a wired system.”
“This will become increasingly important as the industry shifts to HDTV and MPEG-2-HD formats over the next four years,” said the study’s author, Sanjay Chatterjee, noting that WPANs delivered via UWB also allow customers to reconfigure and reposition their hardware easily.
“Wireless displays will also be a key target market, especially as consumers continue to demand larger displays,” Chatterjee said.
Another research firm, ON World, forecasts that 150 million UWB chip sets will be shipped in 2009—a 170 percent cumulative annual growth rate since 2005. While 60 percent of the UWB chips will be used for mobile products, including digital cameras and game consoles, the other 40 percent—about 60 million chips—are destined for fixed consumer devices, including digital TV sets, set-top boxes and DVD players.
This brings us back to Pulse~Link’s testing and demonstration facility. Santhoff and his crew have an intricate research lab to synthesize potential home interference patterns. They gauge how the devices using CWave chips measure up in a cluttered atmosphere within technologically advanced households.
Santhoff waives off the challenge by broadcasters that use of the unlicensed spectrum creates white-space interference for local TV stations.
“We’re operating in the 3.3 GHz band, way above the white space,” he said.
Right now Pulse~Link is focusing on CWave’s ability to coexist with other signals. At the NCTA convention in New Orleans this spring, the company demonstrated its Ethernet-over-coax solution, which showed that up to nine HD multimedia content source and display devices can be linked throughout the home. Pulse~Link has a similar “replica house” at its headquarters that beams signals through a series of “rooms.” Santhoff explains that the high-bandwidth wireless delivery eliminates the expense of rewiring a home with Ethernet cables.FINDING CUSTOMERS
After several stealthy years, Pulse~Link is aggressively going after set-top box and consumer electronics makers in an effort to get its chip into their devices. The cost of technology is less than $100, and down into the $40 range in high volumes. While those were hefty price tags for CE add-ons in the analog age, Santhoff believes that the added cost will not be a deterrent in the context of relatively high-priced digital TV monitors. Moreover, in the design-conscious digital world, the ability to bypass thick and ugly wiring will be attractive, Santhoff said.
The 1 GB capacity of UWB is expected to serve the needs of home viewers for many years. The Pulse~Link system can handle almost all content protection mechanisms without diminishing the video quality, Santhoff said. (The Disney DVD we watched in his testing lab supports that expectation; it beamed into the monitor clearly and unimpeded, except when Santhoff blocked the reception antenna with his hand.) Santhoff said that the company’s chips can handle full IPTV functionality throughout a standard house. Pulse~Link holds more than 300 issued and pending patents related to UWB.
UWB’s initial appeal was its ability to penetrate home walls and other barriers as it carries digital signals around the house. Pulse~Link’s ersatz house adequately shows that capability, which may become even more vital as households add more networked digital devices but cannot—especially in older homes—be retrofit with more wiring.
As the Mind Commerce study on UWB notes, “Ultra-wideband will enable consumers to take that next step to pervasive connectivity within the home. … The need for interoperability is just one reason why UWB adoption will increase” so quickly.