Why More Smart Devices Need Ultra-Wideband

More efficient and accurate connections

Key Takeaways

  • Google reportedly is working on bringing UWB support to future Pixel devices.
  • Smartphones and home devices from Apple, Samsung, and other manufacturers already include support for UWB.
  • With more widespread support, experts believe UWB could fundamentally enhance how we interact with the smart devices in our lives.
UWB or ultra wideband radio technology speaker connecting to a smartphone

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Ultra-wideband (UWB) is an expanding technology that’s slowly gaining more and more support. Experts say it could lead to better connectivity in the future.

Connectivity continues to be a huge component of our lives, especially as we move deeper into a time where the Internet of Things (IoT) is growing rapidly. As we connect with more devices, being able to connect with accuracy and security becomes more important. That’s why UWB connectivity is such an important topic of discussion. Major smartphone manufacturers already are moving to support it more—both Apple and Samsung have devices with UWB, and Google reportedly is working on bringing it to future Pixel phones.

"Ultra-Wideband (UWB) is a radio technology similar to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) or Wi-Fi. However, UWB has a number of features that set it apart," Roy Johnson, a connectivity expert with Allegion, explained in an email. "UWB provides highly accurate positioning that is also remarkably secure."

Bursting With Efficiency

One of the biggest positives UWB brings to the table is lower power consumption. Johnson says UWB can send short bursts of RF energy across a multitude of frequencies, which allows it to work more efficiently than other connectivity technology.

"The transmitter in a UWB system uses very little power compared to other technologies," Johnson explained. "Because the spectral energy of UWB is distributed broadly it has very low transmit power levels at any specific frequency."

This efficiency also brings other benefits. Because UWB doesn’t use the primary frequencies Wi-Fi and Bluetooth make use of, it doesn’t have to fight with other electronic devices that need those frequencies. Congestion is already a huge problem on the most utilized bands like 2.4GHz, which many wireless routers still use because it can transmit over longer distances and penetrate walls and furniture. Unfortunately, due to that congestion, Wi-Fi isn’t as good as it could or should be.

Finding a New Purpose

While UWB initially began as a technology for high data rate communication—a la Wi-Fi—it has since evolved to become more of a sensing technology under the direction of the FiRa Consortium. FiRa is dedicated to bringing widespread UWB support to devices, while focusing heavily on seamless user experiences and interoperability.

The reason it works so well for this is because of the short bursts it sends out. According to Samsung, these bursts are roughly 2 nanoseconds, allowing the UWB system in devices to keep up with detailed information about where items are, instead of waiting multiple seconds or even minutes for updates to the position.

Person opening a door lock with their smartphone

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The downside, though, is UWB has a limited distance. Still, there are plenty of applications it could be applied to in the future. While the most obvious features are similar to those we’re already seeing—keys that unlock your door as you approach it, or a garage door that opens automatically as you drive up—others are more nuanced.

"A UWB transmitter can reach your phone—so long as it's not too far away—and send an alert that can potentially call emergency services or the police," Rex Freiberger, smart device expert and CEO of Gadget Review, told Lifewire in an email. 

Freiberger also notes that hospitals are prime candidates for this type of technology, as they could use it to track where patients are, how close they are to each other, and more.

Challenges Ahead

As with any new tech, there are some challenges that lay ahead. One of the biggest worries is that different devices could run into issues with interoperability, depending on how their UWB systems work.

"Because the spectral energy of UWB is distributed broadly it has very low transmit power levels at any specific frequency."

"Adoption of UWB has been accelerating rapidly with use cases from seamless access to payments and more," Johnson said. "This broad potential combined with strong industry cooperation and focus to achieve interoperability is crucial. One risk could be that devices capable of UWB cannot work together or understand each other."

Fortunately, Johnson says, the FiRa Consortium is working hard to ensure this isn’t an issue in the future.

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