- October 2003 -
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1.0 The FCC's Big Gamble
On February 14 2002, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a much-anticipated ruling that allows for the limited commercial deployment of ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless communications systems in the United States. In opening up an unprecedented amount of unlicensed wireless spectrum in which UWB to operate, the FCC acceded to the requests of a vast number of supporters which literally represent the ecosystem for digital home technology (and specifically home networking). From personal computing powers Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. to consumer electronics giants Philips Electronics N.V. and Samsung Electronics UWB is being positioned as the ideal connectivity solution across a vast range of products, including computer peripherals to digital imaging devices, home theater components, consumer electronics equipment, and mobile phones.
The commercialization of ultra-wideband solutions is an experiment of grand proportions on the part of U.S. regulators. In acceding to the requests of some of the most influential companies in the consumer electronics (CE) and personal computing (PC) markets, the FCC has opened an unprecedented amount of bandwidth for commercial use. In this action, the FCC is betting that a solution such as UWB - which by its nature is a non-interfering technology - will spur new communications development that will drive the wireless industry and overall economic development.
2.0 UWB: A Revolution in Progress?
Parks Associates argues that the "revolutionary" moniker is probably one that gets overused in technology business. After all, we've witnessed enough of the "hype-to-crash" syndrome in the past few years to be jaded to the constant clamor that often accompanies yet another "groundbreaking" technology that was 1) ahead of its time; 2) a wonderful piece of engineering but a nightmare to market; and/or 3) simply not a good idea. UWB has certainly received enough attention as the "revolutionary" technology solution for 2003 (and beyond). Jaded as we are, we agree that this solution may be fundamentally groundbreaking for three reasons, as covered below.
2.1 The Shift in the Regulatory Mindset Regarding Unlicensed Wireless Communications
The commercialization of ultra-wideband solutions - as allowed by recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rulings is an experiment of grand proportions on the part of U.S. regulators. In acceding to the requests of some of the most influential companies in the consumer electronics (CE) and personal computing (PC) markets, the FCC has opened an unprecedented amount of bandwidth for commercial use. In this action, the FCC is betting that a solution such as UWB - which by its nature is a non-interfering technology - will spur new communications development that will drive the wireless industry and overall economic development. 2.2 Rethinking Past Notions about Wireless Networks and Multimedia Connectivity
When it comes to skepticism toward the future implementation of wireless technology (particularly for multimedia applications), Parks Associates is not alone. Despite the success of wireless connectivity solutions in penetrating the mass-market for data networks at, there have existed doubts that wireless networks can provide ample throughput and quality-of-service measures to become the solution of choice for the purposes of audio and video streaming. Of chief concern to many players in the CE world (set-top manufacturers serving the cable and satellite television industries, for example), is that, particularly when it comes to the high-throughput requirements for high-definition television (HDTV) streams in the home, the wireless solutions - as they exist in their present form-simply don't have the overhead - or the throughput capacity - to provide for quality in-home broadcasts. Finally, there exists the argument about the need for a multimedia network that requires the longer-distance transport (say, more than 10 meters, or 30 feet) of video files. Is a whole-house solution really needed?
In specifically addressing the short-range and high-throughput connectivity of any number of devices in the home, UWB's key attributes become quite attractive. In short, and as Figure 1 and Figure 2 highlight, UWB provides a new spin on wireless networks in that it:
Figure 1 Characteristics of Ultra-wideband (IEEE 802.15.3a)
Figure 2 The Lure and Promise of UWB
2.3 Rethinking the Market Landscape: UWB as a Unifying Technology?
To the questions and concerns positioned in the previous section comes UWB. This is a technology designed and positioned not as a "backbone" solution (a longer-distance networking solution), but as one aimed at a very specific market need - cable replacement between and among such devices as high-end consumer electronics platforms (flat panel televisions and receivers, for example), PC peripherals (external storage devices, scanners, etc.) and mobile CE and communications devices (digital cameras, camcorders, music players, etc.).
As Figure 3 illustrates, the cable replacement usage model for UWB opens its potential market across a potentially staggering array of products and platforms. This could be truly revolutionary technology in that it provides a unified wireless interconnectivity standard for the three platform sectors - PC, CE, and mobile - driving home networking today and well into the future.
Figure 3 UWB's Potential Market: PC, CE, and Mobile Devices
Furthermore, UWB may prove to be unifying in terms of its promise of providing a global solution, meeting the regulatory restrictions of the "Big Three" markets - the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan. Supporters of a proposal in front of the standards Task Group of the IEEE aver that it provides for "spectrum agility," in that it can respond to certain portions of the spectrum that may be deemed "off-limits" to unlicensed wireless technologies by automatically adjusting its transmission characteristics. By providing for one solution meeting the requirements of a potentially huge global market, UWB supporters anticipate that development timelines can be pushed forward (as companies are not forced to create a new standard to meet their particular country or region's regulatory standards), products brought to market quicker, volumes increased more rapidly, chipset costs fall, and a mass-market realized sooner. This would indeed be revolutionary!
3.0 Where Is the UWB Market Likely to Find Early Success?
For a solution so adept at providing precision location services - within very minute distances - we find it somewhat ironic that positioning UWB's market fit has resulted in some rather vague (and perhaps overly-optimistic) forecasts. Granted, forecasting in the technology space is always difficult - the best we can offer are educated guesses based on such factors as consumer demand, industry development, history, and (sometimes) logic. Furthermore, positioning UWB on the "market spectrum" - identifying the key platforms and applications for which UWB is likely to be used - is extremely difficult, given its characteristics and the industry support behind it. As the figure below indicates, UWB is a potential market fit across a broad spectrum of products and applications.
We readily acknowledge the challenges inherent in forecasting a networking solution as broadly-positioned as UWB. However, we simultaneously would caution against the over-hype that has been associated with previous "revolutionary" technologies. The clearest example of this type of rose-colored forecasting is Bluetooth. UWB insiders are quite outspoken in their contention that this networking solution cannot experience the "over-hype/under-deliver" syndrome that has become synonymous with Bluetooth's history. Therefore, building forecasts built on pragmatic deployment scenarios are critical in meshing UWB's reality to its much-touted prospects.
Although we are pragmatic, we are by no means pessimistic about UWB's future prospects as a short-range cable replacement technology. We do believe, however, that real UWB deployment is likely not to occur until the 802.15.3a standardization process has been finalized. As of this writing, the IEEE Task Group has failed to ratify the MultiBand-OFDM proposal that appears to have the most momentum behind it. The delay in the standards development is likely to keep major players - primarily in the consumer electronics space - from deploying the solution as quickly as previously thought. We do believe, however, that the PC space - which we believe benefits most from the early rollout of UWB connectivity - will continue to drive its early development. Therefore, we see market deployment shifting from the PC to the CE markets, using the following rationale.
3.1 The Peripheral Interconnect Market
We believe that UWB provides the PC players an optimized solution to finally replace cable connections. We believe that developments such as the new PCI Express™ interconnection for desktops and servers will mean that PC and peripheral manufacturers will seek networking solutions that provide for robust connectivity between PCs and such peripherals as printers, scanners, and external memory and drives.
3.2 Digital Imaging and Mobile CE
Once the PC manufacturers have adopted UWB as a short-range cable replacement solution, we believe that manufacturers of digital cameras, camcorders, and mobile CE devices such as MP3 players will follow suit. We anticipate strong appeal of cable-free and very high-speed connections between the PC and such devices.
3.3 Fixed Consumer Electronics
The fixed consumer electronics space - including such platforms as digital and HDTV receivers, A/V receivers, speakers, home theater projectors, set-top boxes, and the like - will be the last segment to experience high penetration of UWB for several reasons. First, because the early target for "network-capable" CE platforms are high-end and custom installed solutions, we anticipate some early skepticism about using wireless solutions for connectivity between nodes. We believe that it will take some time to convince manufacturers and custom installers that wireless connections can provide the same reliability and quality as wired solutions. Furthermore, we anticipate that IEEE 1394 ("FireWire®") connections will become more commonplace in coming years, and manufacturers may tend to lean toward this solution first, and wireless second. The set-top box market may provide a clear indication FireWire's growth opportunity, as a recent agreement between the cable industry and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) could lead to vastly increased FireWire products. Finally, we are already seeing the trend for point-to-point delivery of audio and video content using Wi-Fi® and other existing wireless solutions. Granted, Wi-Fi itself is not optimized to support high-quality HDTV streams, but advances in compression and transrating techniques for video among silicon vendors means that PC-to-CE point-to-point networks for video distribution are becoming more commonplace. We anticipate that a growing number of manufacturers will adopt Wi-Fi as perhaps an intermediate solution for their point-to-point networking endeavors. UWB implementation will come later.
Figure 4 Total Annual Addressable Market for UWB Nodes
About the Author: Kurt Scherf is vice president of research for Parks Associates. Mr. Mr. Scherf studies developments in home networks, residential gateways, digital entertainment, technology development in the housing market, and residential and building management and controls. Mr. Scherf is the sole author or contributing author/analyst to more than 30 research reports and studies produced by Parks Associates since 1998. Mr. Scherf's most recent work includes Personal Area Networking Solutions: The Next Generation, an overview and analysis of market for ultra-wideband solutions.
About Parks Associates: Parks Associates is a market research and consulting firm focused on all product and service segments that are "'digital"' or provide connectivity within the home. The company's expertise includes home networks, digital entertainment, consumer electronics, broadband and Internet services, and home systems.
Founded in 1986, Parks Associates creates research capital for companies ranging from Fortune 500 to small start-ups through market reports, multiclient studies, consumer research, workshops, and custom-tailored client solutions. Parks Associates also hosts two executive seminars, both part of the Fall Focus series, and co-hosts CONNECTIONS™ (in partnership with the Consumer Electronics Association) each year. www.parksassociates.com .