The Untapped Power of Radio

Ultra-wideband technology is poised to deliver an upgrade in wireless communication.

by Monika Aichele

Monika Aichele

Dreaded cables! They tangle and clutter; they tether and twist. Yet when it comes to zapping video files from camera to desktop, wires are the fastest, most reliable option. Now that's about to change, thanks to an underused military technology set to go mainstream. It's called ultra-wideband, or UWB, and it works by emitting low-power signals across multiple frequencies on the radio spectrum. (Cellphones and Wi-Fi gadgets use just a smidgen of the spectrum, relying instead on specific frequencies.) The extra bandwidth means that more data can travel over the airwaves faster, and that prospect has tech companies drooling. Texas Instruments is developing UWB components for home wireless networks that are up to 10 times as fast as Wi-Fi systems. And in August, Freescale Semiconductor, an Austin, Texasbased company, began producing the first UWB chips that are government-approved for consumer devices--UWB-ready MP3 players and HDTVs could hit stores by December. But not everyone is excited about bringing the technology to the masses. Government and industry groups worry that widespread UWB use will interfere with existing signals, such as GPS. In response, the Federal Communications Commission has placed restrictions on commercial UWB power output, rules that don't hamper data transfer but do limit range. Click on the "enlarge this image" link, above, for four short-distance uses for UWB.