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Module makers take sides in bitter UWB battle

Posted: 09 Sep 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ultrawideband-enabled devices? uwb? freescale semiconductor? mini-pci modules?

The race to market ultrawideband-enabled devices will accelerate this week when Freescale Semiconductor Inc. announces three companies that will develop Mini-PCI modules incorporating Freescale's UWB technology for use in TVs, media servers and storage devices. The deals underscore what the company calls its two-year head start over the Multiband-OFDM Alliance's rival UWB technology in a hotly contested race for future dominance in short-range, high-rate wireless communications.

The competition looks lopsided at first glance, with Freescale and a flotilla of 40 lesser companies going up against the behemoth 170-member Multiband-OFDM Alliance (MBOA), led by Intel, Texas Instruments, Nokia and Philips Semiconductors. The MBOA special interest group said last week that it had finalized its physical-layer specifications ! albeit four months later than planned.

The MBOA-SIG has mass, momentum and a gathering ecosystem that includes the Wireless USB Promoters Group and the WiMedia Alliance. Nevertheless, the underdog Freescale has some notable advantages. First, it has silicon, and second, the silicon has been certified by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Certification means the Freescale chips can coexist with other wireless technologies and thus clears the way for commercial shipments.

The MBOA has no completed silicon and is embroiled in a debate over whether it can meet FCC test compliance without compromising the range or throughput of its UWB technology. Late last month, the MBOA filed a petition with the FCC seeking a waiver of certain FCC rules in order to "permit MB-OFDM technology to compete on an equal footing in the marketplace with other ultrawideband technologies."

Meanwhile, Freescale said its module partnerships with three Taiwanese vendors ! Universal Scientific Industrial Co., Gemtek and GlobalSun Technology ! put it well on the way to delivering final products early next year.

"It's a classic case of the snake eating the rabbit," said Martin Rofheart, director of UWB operations at Freescale. "We're going through the pipeline in stages: from silicon, to module, to system, to end-user product. And we're coming up to closure."

All three module makers will use the current, 110Mbps version of Freescale's UWB chipset and plan to have their products available before the end of the year. UWB modules in the CardBus and USB formats will come next, said Rofheart.

Furthermore, Freescale's more highly integrated chipset ! supporting 220Mbps rates ! will be available later this year or early next, opening up new markets, Rofheart said.

"Yes, they [the MBOA-SIG] have a standard, but that's consistent with our view that we're two years ahead," said Rofheart. "By the time they settle on what they're going to do and get their first wave of discrete components and prototype systems done, you're looking at two silicon cycles ! and that's for organizations that are effective at building RF chip products." Each cycle normally takes at least three quarters, followed by application analysis, feedback and system engineering, he said.

The two-year advantage claimed by Freescale is overstated, said Alan Varghese, director of semiconductor components research at ABI Research, who put the lead in the range of 12-18 months. That said, Freescale is "doing all the right things given the weight of the other [MBOA] camp. Time-to-market is the biggest advantage they have."

But there are different interpretations of what advantage ! if any ! comes from being first in an emerging market. "Time-to-market is more about multiple vendors shipping the same product; otherwise you won't have interoperability," said Roberto Aiello, president and founder of Staccato Communications, an MBOA-SIG promoter company. Other promoter companies include Alereon, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Sony and Wisair.

"You also need the infrastructure in place to support high volumes and to provide customers with second sources [for UWB silicon], and the MBOA provides that," Aiello said.

But interoperability may not be so big an issue at this early stage, said Martin Reynolds, vice president of research firm Gartner Dataquest. "There's plenty of demand for point solutions, such as from a set-top box to a flat-screen TV," he said.

Reynolds said the nascent UWB market demands a longer-term view to determine whether or not Freescale's time-to-market edge with silicon will be a major advantage.

In fact, Reynolds predicts the market will support two de facto UWB standards. In his view, the MBOA-SIG's more power-hungry front-end processing will be relegated to powered applications or laptops, while Freescale's direct-sequence (DS) UWB approach will be better suited to low-power applications such as cell phones and digital cameras.

Wile the MBOA-SIG shrugs off Freescale's chip and module announcements, it is working hard to rid itself of the FCC compliance issue. The question of compliance was raised over a year ago as the IEEE 802.15.3a task group commenced its work on a high-rate, short-range wireless communications physical-layer standard. The MBOA and the Freescale-led DS-UWB camps are the two remaining proposals under consideration, and the .15.3a group has been deadlocked for more than a year as the two sides struggle to gain the crucial 75 percent majority needed for a standard to be ratified by the IEEE.

Frequency side-step

FCC rules state that frequency hopping must be turned off when testing for emissions from frequency-hopping systems. According to the DS-UWB camp, this would impact the performance of the MBOA-based device in terms of throughput or range, thereby preventing it from meeting the requirements of the original .15.3a project authorization request.

However, the MBOA-SIG has consistently argued that its technique does not involve frequency hopping, that the FCC's rules were originally written with impulse radio in mind and that its approach meets the "intent" of those rules in terms of interfering-emissions requirements.

The FCC, for its part, said that because this is a new area, measurements will be done to determine the emissions. If they are not egregious, the agency said it will consider allowing MB-OFDM radios to operate freely. Those tests are currently under way at ITS Labs in Boulder, Colo. In the meantime, the FCC recently certified Freescale's UWB implementation.

With market dominance at stake, the MBOA petitioned the FCC last month for a waiver of Part 15 rules on UWB so that it could "compete on an equal footing" with other UWB technologies.

Julius Knapp, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, said the waiver request should be settled quickly. "Comments should be filed by Sept. 29, and replies to those comments are due in by Oct. 14," he said.

While an MBOA spokeswoman said the waiver simply keeps MB-OFDM-based radios out of limbo while the test-compliance debate goes on, a Freescale spokeswoman called the waiver a tactic to pressure the FCC into concessions to the MBOA and its backers.

Strategy and tactics are at the heart of what has become a passionate and heated race to market between the two camps. In an effort to explain the animosity between them, Freescale's Rofheart said, "This is a new technology, and [the .15.3a standards process] is an opportunity to shape it for the future."

Rofheart called Freescale's claimed time-to-market advantage "a source of aggravation." That may be an understatement.

- Patrick Mannion

EE Times

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