FCC approves major breakthrough in wireless technology

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved limited use of a new technology that reportedly provides a faster and more secure way to send wireless transmissions.

The technology, known as ultrawideband (UWB), offers a potential solution to the squeeze on the nation’s airwaves created by the explosion of mobile phone, pager, and other wireless device usage.

That’s because UWB devices operate over a wide swath of the airwaves, within frequencies already allocated to other uses, by using millions of pulses each second that emit so little energy they do not interfere with other signals.

The FCC voted unanimously to allow the technology to be used on an unlicensed basis. The commission, however, opted to “err on the side of conservatism,” at least for now, by requiring that UWB be used only at certain frequencies and—in some cases—only by certain users.

The full implications of these limits, described in a 100-page document few were able to digest immediately, were unclear at press time. Still, companies involved in developing UWB applications were thrilled to see the FCC take a major step forward.

“We’ve gone from basically being illegal to being legal,” said Jeffrey Ross, a vice president of Time Domain Corp., the Huntsville, Ala., company that developed the technology.

Time Domain is one of a handful of companies that have received waivers to begin marketing UWB devices and were pursuing FCC approval.

UWB, formerly known as “digital-pulse” technology, is the first technology to fuse wireless communications, precise positioning, and radar capabilities into a single chipset architecture, according to Time Domain. The resulting technology can transmit vast amounts of data at high speeds, “see” through walls, and pinpoint exact locations.

UWB is used now mostly by the United States military, but new commercial applications that could be allowed under the standards set by the FCC include wireless, high-speed transmissions over short distances and indoors, such as sending video or data from a handheld device or server to a laptop computer; and sensors in cars that can alert a driver to movement near the vehicle, preventing collisions and promoting “smart” air bag deployment.

Otherwise, the FCC primarily limited UWB technology to public safety uses.

For instance, only police and fire officials, scientific researchers, and mining or construction companies could use so-called ground-penetrating radar devices, which could help rescuers find victims in rubble or locate ruptured gas lines underground.

The FCC also limited devices that can see through walls and detect motion within certain areas to law enforcement and firefighters, which could use them to see into a building during a hostage situation or evaluate a fire from the outside. It was unclear whether those applications will be possible at the low power levels set by the FCC.

Developers of educational content told eSchool News they were excited by UWB’s prospects for schools.

“I’d very much like to commend the FCC, and I’d like to see [the agency] continue this commitment and vision to getting the technology to [users] as quickly as possible,” said Linda Patrick, director of educational sales for Virtual Impact Productions Inc., a Longwood, Fla., company that supplies online textbooks to schools. The FCC’s decision “is going to help us out for sure,” Patrick said. “All the products and services we offer are more readily accessed through ultrawideband. We offer 735-plus online courses, and you can take them on a dial-up [connection], but you’d go nuts. I don’t recommend it.” Installing a wireless network in a school building currently requires a great deal of infrastructure, such as wireless access points in the ceilings of every fourth or fifth classroom. But UWB “would require very little infrastructure,” Time Domain senior vice president Peggy Sammon told eSchool News for a 1999 story. (See “‘Digital-pulse’ technology could change your life,” May 1999, http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=537.)

The FCC proceeded cautiously out of uncertainty whether UWB could coexist safely with other services, such as military airwaves use, cell phones, and the Global Positioning System, the U.S.-built network of navigation satellites.

Commissioners acknowledged the standards might be overprotective but pledged to consider the question again in six months to a year.

Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Steven Price, a deputy assistant secretary at the Pentagon, praised the FCC’s approach.

“To remain the world leader, we must continue to encourage deployment of important new technologies while protecting those that already exist,” Evans said.


Federal Communications Commission

Time Domain Corp.

Virtual Impact Productions Inc.

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