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FCC Set to OK New Wireless System

Telecom: The consumer electronics industry may be revolutionized with ultra-wideband's high-speed technology.

January 04, 2002|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Federal regulators are on the verge of approving a breakthrough wireless technology backed by Intel Corp., Sony Corp. and other big names that could revolutionize the consumer electronics industry.

The technology, known as ultra-wideband, could provide very high-speed wireless Internet access and facilitate other wireless capabilities such as allowing consumers to track intruders with home radar, helping rescuers find earthquake victims and greatly improving collision-avoidance systems.

More than a decade in the making, the versatile technology has been bitterly opposed by airlines and cell phone companies, which say it can cause interference with their communications systems.

The Federal Communications Commission still is negotiating with opponents, but Bruce A. Franca, acting chief of the FCC's office of engineering, said he is hopeful that an accord can be reached and that the FCC will approve the technology next month.

Last year, the FCC granted temporary permission to use ultra-wideband devices to locate victims of the World Trade Center collapse. The agency is considering permanent approval under the same FCC rules that govern such unlicensed wireless devices as cordless phones and baby monitors. New consumer products using ultra-wideband could be on the market as early as this year.

"Ultra-wideband companies are ready to go," said Jeff Ross, a vice president at TimeDomain, a Huntsville, Ala., company that has been developing the technology. He said his company is already selling ultra-wideband tracking devices to the military and some police departments. But the company and other ultra-wideband developers will mostly leave the consumer device manufacturing to others and concentrate on making the key ultra-wideband receiving transmission microchips. Ross said such chips should be ready for use in consumer equipment "in the next couple of months."

Ultra-wideband's sprint to market has been aided by its flexible technology, comparatively low cost and fortuitous timing, experts say.

Unlike most other wireless systems, which transmit signals on specific airwaves, ultra-wideband devices communicate through short pulses of low power radio energy. And they use a swath of frequencies spanning cell phones to satellite signals.

FCC officials, dismissing critics' claims that the pulses cause interference, say the technology uses small amounts of power--only fractions of a watt--and that it doesn't require the same lengthy licensing scrutiny given to broadcasters, cell phone companies and other wireless devices. However, the agency is considering initially limiting ultra-wideband to small areas before allowing more broadly disbursed networks covering, say, airports or shopping malls.

Ultra-wideband is a digitally enhanced radar technology that enables users to transmit encrypted voice and radar signals simultaneously, using short bursts of radio waves. Its signals are difficult to intercept and can be digitally encrypted for additional security.

This combination could eliminate much of the eavesdropping hackers can now do on many wireless networks because an ultra-band network can be configured to communicate only with users at a specific location.

Similarly, military commanders and firefighters could use ultra-wideband to track their personnel in the field while also talking to them securely. By contrast, radios emit such a strong signal that they can be identified by an enemy or eavesdropper.

These traits have helped win ultra-wideband greater government acceptance amid the nation's increasing focus on security after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, industry executives say.

Executives at TimeDomain said that in recent years they could barely get a foot in the door in Washington to peddle their technology. But after the terrorist attacks, everyone from the Office of Naval Research to Congress began seeking them out to use ultra-wideband in military and search-and-rescue operations.

Besides TimeDomain, half a dozen other start-ups are developing ultra-wideband technology, including Aether Wire & Location Inc. of Nicasio, Calif., Pulse-Link Inc. of San Diego, Multispectral Solutions Inc. of Germantown, Md., and Xtreme Spectrum of Vienna, Va.

The technology also is being backed by chip maker Intel, which held a big industry forum on the subject in October. Meanwhile, consumer electronics giant Sony is hoping to utilize the technology for high-speed wireless video transmission and home-video networks linked to TV set-top boxes.

Despite its promise, ultra-wideband faces some hurdles.

Other unregulated wireless services, such as the short-range radio technology Bluetooth and the wireless ethernet standard 802.11b, have a year or more head start and already are in many laptops, cell phones and hand-held devices. However, these technologies are slower and more costly than ultra-wideband and are unsuited for transmitting video and other bandwidth-hogging applications.

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