Wireless Justice For All
By Dan Briody, Thu May 16 00:00:00 GMT 2002

After a hair-raising battle on Capitol Hill, ultra-wideband technology prevails over corporate greed and fear.

If you’ve ever wondered why it takes so long for new technologies to make it to market, you need look no further than the recent debate over ultra-wideband in Washington D.C. for your answer. Politics, fear, and greed all combine to make this a great story of technological intrigue. It’s like the X-Files for techno-geeks. A wireless Watergate.

After three and a half years of political wrangling, the Federal Communications Commission approved ultra-wideband in February for commercial use in the United States. Used for decades by the U.S. military for covert communications, the broader potential for ultra-wideband is just now becoming clear.

In fact, its low cost, high-speed method of sending data has the wireless establishment up in arms, lodging claims of interference, and lobbying the federal government to severely restrict the usage of ultra-wideband. The ongoing battle over this highly effective but little-known technology underscores the hurdles which new technologies face in coming to market. And the fear that established corporations live with every day, that a new technology could rise up and unseat their incumbent position.

The Imminent Threat

It’s not unusual for considerable resistance to mount in the face of a new technology. As Clay Christenson notes in the Innovator’s Dilemma, the instant-classic book that chronicles the fear of change in which most corporations live, disruptive technologies like ultra-wideband can suddenly and completely overturn existing markets and create new ones.

For its part, ultra-wideband immediately threatens the nascent 802.11 community by offering cheaper, faster solutions to wireless LANs. Intel is currently working on a 500Mbps chip solution that would dwarf the existing 11Mbps users get from 802.11b. And because the majority of the typical radio functions - like mixers, oscillators, and tuners – ultra-wideband solutions can fit onto a single chip, allowing for an inexpensive solution that gets faster and cheaper as Moore’s Law progresses.

Bluetooth is another technology that may never see the light of day because of the emergence of ultra-wideband. With its low-power requirements and small footprint, ultra-wideband is a good solution for device-to-device communications. And Bluetooth is having enough trouble getting off the ground without a superior technology competing with it. “UWB is a good candidate to replace the Bluetooth radio,” says Ben Manny, co-director of the wireless technology group at Intel.

But none of this explains the vehement opposition of wireless carriers, the department of defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, the GPS community, and countless other wireless industries that marshaled their forces against ultra-wideband over the last three years. Ostensibly, most of the opposition is coming in the form concerns over the potential of “harmful interference.”

This means that wireless carriers are worried that if someone is using their cell phone near an ultra-wideband signal, the resulting interference will put a strain on their costly cellular networks. The PCS carriers in particular are opposed to UWB because of the sensitivity of their receptors, a trait they hold in common with the GPS providers.

Running Interference

In attempting to defeat ultra-wideband, the opposition went to extraordinary lengths. Some 900 companies filed petitions with the F.C.C., some claiming that airplanes would be falling out of the sky as a result of the interference with F.A.A. guidance systems, and the blood will be on the hands of the UWB startups. “It was rough stuff,” says Maura Colleton, managing director at Qorvis Communications, the public affairs company hired to lobby the government in favor of UWB on behalf of ultra-wideband startup XtremeSpectrum. “The stakes were high and shots were fired. People were protecting existing markets and their ability to go into future ones. All the incumbents had to do was to put out the idea of interference with airplanes after September 11th, and everybody freaked out.”

While it is true that some of the groups, like the F.A.A, was in fact protecting its valuable spectrum – “it’s a religious thing” says Colleton of spectrum protection – a growing number of interested parties are beginning to believe what the UWB startups had been saying all along: the carriers are afraid of the competition.

Though studies had been done, none were comprehensive enough to prove whether ultra-wideband actually constituted harmful interference. One UWB startup, Time Domain which is backed by Sony, did a study in conjunction with Sprint PCS. The study found that there was in fact interference, but Time Domain and Sprint PCS interpreted the results completely differently.

Time Domain felt the interference was so minimal that it constituted no threat whatever to the PCS network. Sprint felt differently. “There is a big difference between interference and harmful interference,” says Ralph Petroff, president and CEO of Time Domain. “All devices interfere with all other devices. The question is one of degree.”

Ultimately, it fell upon the F.C.C. and the National Telecommunications and Information Association, the organization that advises the President on all telecom matters, to do the testing themselves. After one of the most extensive set of tests ever performed on a new technology, the F.C.C. determined that ultra-wideband posed no significant threat and that the carriers claims were overblown. They then approved the technology for use between 3.1GHz and 10.6 GHz, at a power level that restricts the distance to about 100 feet. “It was extraordinarily contentious,” recalls Mike Gallagher, deputy director of the NTIA, and deputy assistant secretary of the commerce department. “But we relied on the facts and on the testing data. Any precedent setting technology, a disruptive technology like UWB, faces resistance. But you have to be able to see through the fury of the moment. You have to filter for the truth.”

Just how political the negotiations were became clear when proponents of UWB pointed out, accurately, that two of the biggest opponents to the commercialization of the technology, the F.A.A and the Department of Defense (DOD), are the biggest current users of it. “The biggest users of ultra-wideband are the DOT (department of transportation) and the DOD, so use that backdrop of reality against those inflammatory statements made by opponents,” says Gallagher.

Truth or Dare

The truth, in this case, appears to be more complicated than originally asserted however. While concerns over spectrum congestion was the main lobbying platform, it is believed by many that carriers were in fact more concerned about protecting their existing investment in the wireless communication infrastructure of the United States. In many ways, ultra-wideband is an effective alternative to traditional cellular networks, as the military has been using the technology to communicate up to 60 miles in some regions.

The idea that the F.C.C. could one day lift the restrictions currently placed on UWB, and open up the possibility of a competing wireless communications network, has the incumbent carriers on edge. “Many of these guys are concerned about competition, not interference,” says Time Domain’s Petroff. “I don’t think any of their arguments have any scientific validity. They’re fearful of the competition, real or imagined.”

Petroff says that there is a “Pavlovian response” to any new technology in wireless. And though the little ultra wideband startups may have eked out a victory in this first battle over UWB, the war is far from being over. The F.C.C. has agreed to review the technology in the next six to twelve months, after some commercial products have made it to market and real life situations with UWB can be evaluated.

In the mean time, the carriers have not given up the fight. In a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans and F.C.C. chairman Michael Powell, AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, Qualcomm, Sprint PCS, and Verizon Wireless implored the government to restrict UWB transmissions to above 6 GHz, a level that would severely cripple the effectiveness of the technology. Further limiting the transmission levels of UWB would preclude it from ever rising up to challenge the incumbent providers. And though F.C.C. rulings may set the precedent for the rest of the world in dealing with UWB, there are many countries that will not follow the United States’ lead.

Officials say that in some less developed parts of the world, UWB networks could become the de facto communications network. Others have their doubts about the robustness of the technology. “It is realistic to think that in South America and China, where they are looking to allow UWB to transmit at higher levels, this could spawn a whole new category of new competitors,” says Chris Fisher, vice president of marketing at XtremeSpectrum. “But you have to do these things in baby steps. You have to crawl before you can walk.”

New technologies will always have difficult hurdles to clear when taking aim for established markets. The saga of ultra wideband is not the first time a new wireless platform has stared down the establishment and won. Some may remember not too long ago when a little company called Qualcomm and its CDMA technology took on the whole world and managed to carve out its own little niche in wireless.

And it is heartening to know that federal regulators can see through the corporate bluster of powerful companies keeping technology down. UWB should have a long and lucrative future ahead of it, a chance to enhance wireless communications throughout the world, provided that governments around the world protect consumers first, corporations second.

And wireless justice for all. Amen.

After failing miserably at every attempt to become the next great American author, Dan Briody settled in San Francisco and started writing about the technology revolution in the mid-90s. Today he is the author of Red Herring's Wireless Watch column, and he is still trying to write the great American novel.