Ern Worthman, Technology and Editorial Director
Well, here I am. It's about 11:00 PM, Sunday night, June 20th. Cat-in-lap, I'm munching on a bag of chocolate-covered peanuts and finishing my last cup of 12 hour old coffee (between the coffee and chocolate, I should have real caffeine buzz going in about 15 minutes). Tomorrow morning I head for Chicago and Stuporcomm (no it's not a typo).
I promised my ultra-efficient, editor-in-chief I'd have her my UWB column by sunrise Monday morning, so this is what I get for procrastinating.
I'm still digesting all the input from the IMS, but one topic that stood out this year and was making a lot of noise is ultra wideband technology. I'm convinced it has potential. But, like most technologies, (remember the Bluetooth everywhere mantra)? presently, UWB is both an emerging and, to some degree, over hyped technology, even though it's been around since the 1960's.
Today's evolution of UWB truly has a lot of potential. But like any emerging technology, there is the tendency to exploit its fluidity. By that I mean the temptation to position UWB as the solution for any number of bandwidth issues (check this quote from a fairly well known wireless research and consulting source: Ultra-Wideband stands poised to replace any current wireless technology and revolutionize even the SOHO market. This translates into a very powerful technology with a host of new problems yet to be resolved.") Well, I especially like the part about stands poised to replace ... and with a host of new problems ... - see what I mean about hype?
UWB will eventually offer gigabits of bandwidth - enough to make any multimedia application salivate. But this wide bandwidth comes at a price - low-power. This low-power limitation means that UWB will have a limited (not necessarily small, however) arena to play in - the short-range arena.
Now, that doesn't mean that there won't be scads of opportunity to implement UWB. And power levels will creep up over time.
For example, one of the most promising applications for UWB is wireless in-home media - sign me up, Scotty! I'm awfully tired of RG 5 or 6 all over my place. And from what I've seen of Wi-Fi's attempt to deliver streaming fast-frame video and multi-channel audio, so far, it's lacking. I'd love to have a central distribution point from where I can beam full frame, uncompressed (well almost) multimedia to any receiver in my house. And, the remote will be capable of hitting the source through walls so basically all I need are audio/video terminals and one remote, and I can listen/watch anywhere. No need for video/audio tuners or decoders at any of the remote locations.
This could be really big if it catches on. Not only will the wireless industry have a ton of opportunity but so will the manufacturers of consumer electronic equipment.
But, before we all run out and buy UWB-enabled consumer electronics, understand that other competing technologies may not let that horse run unbridled (read: Wi-Fi). So, again, all that glitters isn't always gold,as I like to say. Among some of the hype is the notion that UWB is going to be the Wi-Fi killer. There is a battle brewing. The noise is that Wi-Fi proponents aren't going to roll over and let UWB become the unchallenged delivery medium for multimedia.
But, the Wi-fi camp has a bit steeper hill to climb than the USB camp. UWB's MAC layer was designed to have high-efficiency from the git-go - 80 to 90% isn't uncommon. Wi-Fi, on the other hand pays heavily for efficiency beyond about 50 Mb/s. The Wi-Fi MAC layer isn't designed for speeds much above the present "g" spec of 54 Mb/s. Cranking that up to say 100 Mb/s slams the Wi-Fi's MAC efficiency down to maybe 50%, so actual though put may only be 40 or 50 Mb/s. UWB's MAC layer can handle 480 Mb/s without even breaking a sweat, with 1 Gb/s on the horizon. Even at 80% efficiency, the math is pretty obvious.
And, present Wi-Fi data is somewhat corruption tolerant. Keeping data integrity in present computer data Wi-Fi systems is fairly transparent to the user. Data corruption in multimedia is a lot more apparent.
QoS is another issue that Wi-Fi faces. The "e" amendment to the 802 spec is supposed to address that, but as long as legacy devices remain in the loop, QoS issues will too.
Personally, I'm tiring of these all to common technology battles, since the start of technological revolution, circa betamax vs. VHS. Of course, the computer/communicator/entertainment convergence is going to happen. So, why is it we try to apply platforms to applications in a shoe-horn fashion all the time. Wi-Fi is designed and works well for computer-generated traffic. UWB is being designed and works well for multimedia traffic. ZigBee is designed and works well for low data rate signalling applications - and so on.
This should tell us something. Convergence isn't necessarily the culmination and bullying of one technology over all others. It should be the seamless integration of the maturing of multiple platforms, that work best for the particular application, in a common interface. Maybe we should step back and think about the ultimate convergence from that perspective. And rather than slug it out for the sake of one technology, let the right technology fit the job.