The Future of Ultra Wideband—The Shakeout Begins

Eric Broockman, CEO, Alereon

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

Recently WiQuest—a leader in first-generation Ultra Wideband (UWB) silicon—closed its doors. One question that will surely be asked is, “What does this mean for the future of UWB?”

Some industry pundits will proclaim that UWB is dead or that this is some form of setback to the industry. Not so. Those of us in the high tech business have seen this movie many times before. To really answer the question, we need to review history from two perspectives. First, why UWB makes sense, and second, what the history of new technologies teaches us.

History of UWB

UWB came into being because of new FCC regulations authorizing the use of an ultra-wide band of frequencies to transmit information in an unlicensed frequency band from 3.1 to 10.6 GHz (Figure 1), but at infinitesimal transmit power levels. Over time, the WiMedia UWB standard was developed. WiMedia is the only technology capable of transmitting data in a personal area network that acts as a point -to-point wireless cable replacement technology. The speeds can reach 480 Mbps, and in the future, even faster. More importantly, the power and battery efficiency per megabyte of data transferred is more than 5 to 10 times more efficient than WiFi. In addition, unique to UWB, it can be deployed at high density on every desktop in a typical office layout without interfering with other users while still delivering very high throughput.

Figure 1: FCC UWB Passband Specification

These fundamental advantages of UWB versus other non-UWB wireless technologies have not vanished because one company has closed its doors. In fact, the unique advantages of UWB not only make it attractive to have been adopted for use in Wireless USB, but also to have been adopted by the Bluetooth SIG as the basis of a future high-speed version of Bluetooth. In the near future Bluetooth over UWB will certainly provide compelling applications for portable electronics. To summarize, the value of Ultra wideband hasn’t disappeared just because one company has disappeared.  Compelling applications exist, and major consumer-product manufacturers are actively pursuing these applications. After all, a life without wires so that your desktop is devoid of a tangle of USB cables is a desirable benefit all consumers can agree on that UWB can deliver.

Best Beats First

Now let’s look at some other high-tech history. If we study the development of the 10/100 Ethernet standard, it wasn’t AMD, nor was it Level One, nor National Semiconductor that ultimately won that race. Instead, it was a little known startup, Broadcom Communications, which prevailed and ultimately grew into the powerhouse they are today. Interestingly, Broadcom was not first to market. However they were not far behind, and they had a superior performing, lower power product and they won. Remember also, there were dozens of other 10/100 startup companies at the time that were either acquired or have subsequently been lost to history.

As a continued history lesson, when the Bluetooth standard began, again there were dozens of startups. They were competing against Ericsson and other major semiconductor manufacturers. Cambridge Silicon Radio, now called CSR, was not the first to market, but they brought the best to market. They subsequently became a public company and a billion dollar wireless provider (which ironically is now under pressure from Broadcom). There were dozens of other Bluetooth startups, a few of which were acquired by larger companies, but ultimately CSR was the true winner.

Our next example is WiFi.  Back in 2003 there was a study done of how many WiFi startups had been funded. The study I read claimed that 53 WiFi startup companies were begun during the tech boom.  Three were acquired by major companies. However, Atheros, a Silicon Valley startup, beat back the likes of TI and Intersil, and ultimately captured the market to become a successful publicly traded company and a leader in wireless communications. The rest of the 53 vanished.

Finally, let’s go back a bit farther in time to the beginning of the cell phone. A startup company nobody had heard of began in San Diego, California. The founder had an outlandish vision – that one day everyone in the world would carry around a battery powered phone to make phone calls. They were competing against Motorola, the grand daddy of radio communications for generations. More than two decades have passed since Qualcomm was founded back in 1985, and last year they became the largest wireless semiconductor supplier in the world.

It Takes a While

Common to 10/100 Ethernet, the early days of Bluetooth, the history of WiFi and the history of the cell phone, was a painful and long birthing process.  Each of these markets took longer than most people thought it would to develop into a $100M and then multi-billion dollar market. In fact, it took a lot longer.  In each of  these technologies, the ultimate winner was not one of the established players but a new comer, a startup company focused on providing superior solutions in a timely manner to meet customer’s needs. It was also not the first company to market that conquered, but rather the best to market. These companies ultimately went public. There were other startups that were acquired. However most shared the fate of shutting their doors.

I feel badly for the employees of WiQuest; at the same time we all know that when you work at a private company “to the winner goes glory”; the near winner is likely acquired by a bigger company; and for those that falter, the doors close. That is the Darwinian nature of this business.

The closure of WiQuest does not portend the end of UWB. Rather, it is a testament to the fact that they did not have a solution available for OEMs today that provides support for world-wide shipments at high throughput and low power consumption. WiQuest is the most visible startup to close its doors so far, but if history tells us anything, they won’t be the last.

With or without WiQuest and others, UWB will continue to move forward. It has begun with the introduction of wireless docking stations and wireless hard drives. Soon you will see easy to use wireless conference room projectors – no more “pass the VGA cable please.” Digital cameras will soon be available that automatically upload your photos to your PC at very high speed without draining your battery. Yes, the market has taken a long time. UWB is a difficult technology to design and build. However UWB is taking the same well trodden path of many other highly successful technologies that came before it. Taking longer than most people thought, being declared dead a few times along the way, only to ultimately become a mainstay in our modern day life.

UWB will be no different, and will usher in a future of “life without wires” – a future that all consumers are anxious to embrace.

Alereon, Inc.
Austin, TX
(512) 345-4200

This article first appeared in the January, 2009 issue of Portable Design. Reprinted with permission.

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