Alereon To Release New Wireless USB Chip

Chip designer Alereon Inc. said Monday it is releasing the first chip that uses a frequency band that is legal all over the world for wireless 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 U.S. market, but they send and receive signals over a frequency that isn't legal in most of the world because of potential interference with radar.

USB, or Universal Serial Bus, 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'll 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," said analyst Steve Wilson at ABI Research.

The underlying radio technology is called ultra-wideband, or UWB, and uses frequencies far above those usually employed for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cellular 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 30 feet.

In theory, UWB can reach speeds of up to 480 megabits per second, equivalent to USB 2.0 cables, at distances up to 10 feet, 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 $200 with chips from an Alereon competitor, Wisair of Israel, but like Alereon's AL4000, they use frequencies that are clear only in the U.S.

Another competitor, Realtek Semiconductor Corp. of Taiwan, announced in May a chip that uses frequencies as high as 7.9 gigahertz, reaching into the 7.3 GHz to 9 GHz band that is legal or expected to be legal all over the world. Alereon's AL5000 uses frequencies up to 10.6 GHz.

UWB has been the subject of a sometimes acrimonious 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 cell phones and headsets, has said it will incorporate WiMedia's UWB flavor in its own standard, creating a high-speed version of Bluetooth.

"Availability of WiMedia hardware this early in the market supports the planned introduction of High Speed Bluetooth technology in 2008 that operates in the unlicensed spectrum above 6 GHz," said Mike Foley, director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, in a statement.

Alereon was spun off from Huntsville, Ala.-based Time Domain Corp. in 2003 and is privately held. Its investors include Austin Ventures and Samsung Ventures. Time Domain focuses on using UWB technology for radar-like sensors that can see through walls.