Chip designer Alereon Inc said yesterday it is releasing the first chip that uses a frequency band that is legal all over the world for wireless Universial Serial Bus (USB), a technology with the potential to cut the tangle of cables surrounding computers.
The new chip could prove an important step in persuading computer makers to incorporate the technology. A few wireless USB products are already on the US market, but they send and receive signals over a frequency that is not legal in most of the world because of potential interference with radar.
USB cables connect computers to mice, keyboards, printers, cameras and external hard drives. Alereon spokesman Mike Krell believes the new chip, the AL5100, will show up in external hard drives and cameras this year. They will connect to computers with optional wireless add-in cards, or dongles that go into USB ports.
"Assuming that they do it right and it works, it's going to be a pretty powerful technology for interconnecting devices," analyst Steve Wilson at ABI Research said.
The underlying radio technology is called Ultra-Wideband (UWB), and uses frequencies far above those usually employed for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, mobile phones and other wireless technologies. It's relatively virgin territory in the airwaves, and exploiting it promises high data transfer rates with low power consumption at the price of range -- the signal hardly goes further than 10m.
In theory, UWB can hit speeds of up to 480 megabits per second, equivalent to USB 2.0 cables, at distances up to 3m, but Alereon spokesman Mike Krell said first-generation devices were not that fast.
Krell expects the Austin, Texas-based company's first UWB chipset, the AL4000, to reach the consumer market in a month or two in wireless USB hubs, to which peripherals can be connected with standard USB cables. The hub itself communicates wirelessly to a dongle on the computer.
Belkin Corp already sells a similar hub for US$200 with chips from an Alereon competitor, Wisair of Israel, but like Alereon's AL4000, they use frequencies that are clear only in the US.
Another competitor, Realtek Semiconductor Corp of Taiwan, announced last month a chip that uses frequencies as high as 7.9 gigahertz, reaching into the 7.3 gigahertz to 9 gigahertz band that is legal or expected to be legal all over the world. Alereon's AL5000 uses frequencies up to 10.6 gigahertz.
UWB has been the subject of a feud among technology companies. Motorola Inc spinoff Freescale Semiconductor Inc championed a different technology for exploiting these frequencies.
An attempt to reconcile it with the WiMedia Alliance that included Alereon failed in an engineering standards body.
Freescale was, however, slightly ahead in development, and the first USB hubs using its chips were expected to go on sale last year. But with partners flocking to the WiMedia camp, Freescale ditched its UWB program.
The 8,000-strong trade association behind Bluetooth, the short-range wireless technology that connects mobile phones and headsets, has said it will incorporate WiMedia's UWB flavor in its own standard, creating a high-speed version of Bluetooth.
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