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Bluetooth Going Ultra-Wideband

The Bluetooth wireless standard used in cell phones and other small devices will take a leap in transmission speed, broadening its scope to enable high-definition video and files for digital music players like the iPod.

The industry group behind Bluetooth said Tuesday that it would boost transfer speeds in the next few years by incorporating a new radio technology, known as ultra-wideband, or UWB.

Currently, Bluetooth works only for low-speed uses like headsets and wireless keyboards. UWB, which has yet to appear in consumer devices, enables wireless transmissions at speeds equivalent to USB or FireWire cables at distances up to 10 feet.

The first products with high-speed Bluetooth may show up late next year, with wider availability in 2008, said Michael Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group.

UWB is developed by another industry group, the WiMedia Alliance, which includes Intel Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Microsoft Corp.

Its linkup with Bluetooth will provide a way for devices with UWB hardware to identify each other and communicate. For instance, a phone with Bluetooth can recognize a headset and know that it receives and sends audio data.

"There's a convergence between three major sectors: personal computing, consumer electronics and cell phones," said Stephen Wood, president of the WiMedia Alliance.

These devices all need the ability to send large files, Wood said. For instance, a camcorder with WiMedia technology could transmit high-definition video wirelessly to a TV set in the same room.

The deal with the Bluetooth group is further validation of the WiMedia Alliance's approach to utilizing UWB technology.

It competes with the smaller UWB Forum, centered around Motorola spin-off Freescale Semiconductor Inc., which uses a different technology to exploit the same radio spectrum and has come slightly further in implementing it. The two groups tried for years to unite on a single standard, but earlier this year formally broke off those efforts.

Freescale's technology is expected to appear in a few months in the first consumer products, attachments that wirelessly link a laptop to a USB hub.

However, the WiMedia Alliance has a larger base of industry support and shares many members with the Bluetooth standards group.

"It just appears that the WiMedia solution has more momentum right now, and it's just the direction that our membership wanted to take," Foley said.

ABI Research analyst Stuart Carlaw wrote in a report that the Bluetooth-WiMedia announcement "does paint a very bleak picture" for the UWB Forum, which he said may not survive the setback.

Carlaw estimates that more than 1 billion Bluetooth gadgets will be made annually by the end of the decade, and even if only a fraction of those include WiMedia hardware, it will still far outstrip other UWB technologies.

But Robert Eisses, marketing chair for the UWB Forum, said in a statement that the announcement "has no direct impact" on the group's work.

Bluetooth won't be the only communications protocol for WiMedia hardware. Members of the alliance are developing a Wireless USB standard and another based on the Internet Protocol, the core communications technology enabling e-mail, the Web and other Internet traffic. The first products are expected by September.

Both flavors of UWB use a wide swath of radio spectrum to transmit very weak and rapid signals. Freescale's chips send rapid pulses across a wide range of frequencies. Chips from Alereon Inc., part of the WiMedia Alliance, divide the spectrum into multiple channels and transmits data through each of them simultaneously.

The Federal Communications Commission has cleared the use of UWB in the United States, but the technology still needs approval from spectrum-guarding authorities in the rest of the world.

Foley said the Bluetooth group believed the best way to achieve that would be to focus on the little-used band above 6 gigahertz. That would ease regulatory concerns but also reduce the range of the technology, as the signals can't penetrate walls.

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