A promising technology is slowed by regulators, then stifled in the standards-setting process.

After 12 years, the FCC has closed out one of the longest and most contentious rulemakings in recent memory.

Ultra-wideband was bound to be controversial from the start.  The basic idea consists of spreading a low-level signal across a very wide swath of spectrum, often a gigahertz or more. In principle, the level at any one frequency is too low to interfere with conventional spectrum users, but the power adds up across the wide bandwidth into a useful signal.

The FCC expected two main kinds of uses: data transmission, which can reach hundreds of megabits per second over short distances, and a variety of imaging and radar applications.

The Slow Grind of Regulation

When the FCC first proposed rules to allow ultra-wideband, virtually all major categories of spectrum users rose up as one to oppose it. The opposition included:

  • aerospace companies
  • amateur radio associations and operators
  • airlines and their associations
  • broadcasters
  • major cell phone manufacturers
  • cell phone service providers (especially vehement in their opposition)
  • U.S. Government agencies (including the Department of Defense, Federal Aviation Administration, and NASA)
  • the GPS industry association and several manufacturers
  • aviation radio interests
  • maritime radio interests
  • medical telemetry companies
  • many police and fire departments
  • satellite radio providers
  • many satellite companies and their association (likewise vehement)
  • telephone equipment manufacturers, and
  • many more.

Facing down this expensively lawyered force was a small handful of start-up companies, backed by a few established radar manufacturers. But the start-ups had something on their side even more powerful than lawyers: the laws of physics. Straightforward analyses showed that ultra-wideband, with appropriate safeguards, was non-interfering.  Opponents that tried to show otherwise had to make unrealistic assumptions in their math. At least, that is how the FCC saw it.

The starting date was September 1, 1998, just over 12 years ago, with a Notice of Inquiry. The FCC followed in 2000 with proposed rules. After sitting through many months of vigorous lobbying and counter-lobbying, the FCC authorized ultra-wideband in 2002. To accommodate some of the opponents, it divided the authorized devices into several distinct categories. All had strict limits on radio emissions, and all but one had limits on eligibility or other aspects of usage. The highest power authorized for any type of device, at any frequency, was the same minuscule level permitted for stray emissions from laptops and iPods. Limits were lower still in some frequency bands, to avoid particular incumbents, with the details varying by ultra-wideband category. For all types, permitted power in the GPS satellite bands was less than three trillionths of a watt – by far the smallest number anywhere in the FCC rules.

The rules made a lot of people unhappy. Eight spectrum users, collectively representing the cell phone, satellite, and aviation industries, filed six petitions for reconsideration. Each wanted the allowed power cut back in their respective bands. Ten ultra-wideband developers and users filed nine petitions, most seeking more power and/or fewer usage restrictions. One FCC official, noting the roughly equal numbers of objections from both sides, joked about how that showed that the Commission must have got it right.

In 2003, the FCC made some tweaks, but largely brushed off all factions and left the substance of the rules unchanged.

Two spectrum users (cell phone and satellite) sought reconsideration of the reconsideration order. You can start to see a pattern.

In 2004, the FCC denied both those petitions as having presented no new evidence of interference. It also allowed ultra-wideband-like operation in certain frequency bands, at the same low power, but with a reduced bandwidth requirement. The FCC called these “wideband” systems, without the “ultra.”

You will not be surprised to hear the same satellite and cell phone interests again sought reconsideration. This made their third time back on the same issues.

While the lawyers were busy filing their petitions and oppositions, the engineers kept busy, too. By 2004, in addition to the original “direct sequence” modulation form of ultra-wideband (dubbed DS-UWB), they had developed an alternative version called MB-OFDM (easier to say than “multi-band orthogonal frequency division multiplexing” ). MB-OFDM advocates argued that a certain detail of the FCC’s technical rules disadvantaged them unfairly, relative to DS-UWB. They requested a waiver as to that detail.  The DS-UWB proponents opposed the waiver, claiming it would allow an MB-OFDM signal four times more powerful than the rules intended, and cause interference to nearby DS-UWB systems. The FCC granted the waiver in 2005. Solomon-like, though, it phrased the decision in a way that gave DS-UWB developers the same four-fold power boost as MB-OFDM.

Two parties filed petitions for reconsideration of the waiver grant – but not disgruntled MB-OFDM or DS-UWB advocates. No, it was – prepare to be shocked – the same satellite and cell phone people who had so far challenged everything else coming out of the FCC on ultra-wideband.

The FCC tossed the waiver reconsideration petitions onto the back of the desk, next to the last set of the rulemaking petitions from the same two parties.

The FCC took a break. A long break. More than five years.

Refreshed and invigorated, the FCC went back to work. Several days ago it issued the fruits of its labors:  an order denying both outstanding pairs of reconsideration petitions. This was no rush job. In 17 single-spaced pages, the FCC systematically analyzed and dismantled all of the arguments and sub-arguments in all four of the pending petitions. Its goal, as far as we can tell, was to put a stake through the heart of the proceeding that would prevent it from ever again rising up to alarm the townsfolk.

The standards problem

One question, though. After 12 years, seven major FCC orders, and over 1,300 carefully drafted filings, where are the ultra-wideband products?

The imaging and radar parts of the business are doing well, but they are largely invisible to the public: ground-penetrating radars, radars that measure product levels in tanks and water levels outdoors, automatic braking systems for cars, through-the-wall radars for police, location tags, intruder-detection systems, devices for finding survivors under rubble . . . the list is long.

Communications and consumer devices, on the other hand, are scarce. You can find a wireless microphone, some in-home video distribution products, a line of “wireless USB” dongles for computers, and not much else. The reason for that, sadly, has nothing to do with the workability of the technology, and everything to do with in-fighting among the manufacturers.

The industry got into a standards fight. Older readers may remember the VHS/Beta fiasco. Younger ones might know about the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray stand-off a few years ago. These disputes are rarely good for either the industry or the public.

The forum for ultra-wideband was not the consumer marketplace, but an organization called the IEEE, which sets standards for many kinds of communications devices. Any two Wi-Fi devices are certain to work together because they both conform to standard IEEE 802.11. Ditto for Bluetooth and IEEE 802.15. And dozens of others. Compliance with the standards is wholly voluntary, but manufacturers know it helps them to reach a vastly bigger market.

MB-OFDM and DS-UWB each wanted to be the relevant IEEE standard. But the IEEE people set their own standards high: 75 percent of those voting must concur. (There are rules on who can vote.) The standards debates began in early 2003, a year after the FCC first adopted ultra-wideband rules, and went on for nearly three years. Both sides tried to pack the voting groups (this is allowed) and lobbied vigorously. But neither side could break through the 75 percent ceiling.  A last-ditch effort to combine the two failed. The committee finally agreed to disband in January, 2006, with both sides vowing to fight it out in the marketplace. So far, though, the fight has been half-hearted.

Success in the marketplace takes more than skilled engineers, and sometimes more than effective lawyers, too. It can also take diplomatic negotiators. The short history of ultra-wideband shows what can happen when that process fails.