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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Truth or Dare
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
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
And wireless justice for all.
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.