Ultra-Wideband (UWB) Was at the Forefront of MWC 24 Connectivity Innovation, but Challenges Remain

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By Andrew Zignani | 1Q 2024 | IN-7265

This ABI Insight highlights how a number of key announcements made at and around MWC 24 have the potential to propel Ultra-Wideband (UWB) technology and adoption to new heights, but numerous barriers need to be overcome to ensure long-term success.

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Qualcomm, CEVA, GiantSemi, and imec Introduce New UWB Solutions


February 2024 will likely represent a key milestone in the acceleration of the UWB ecosystem, technology innovation, and widespread adoption. Chipset and Intellectual Property (IP) announcements from Qualcomm, CEVA, GiantSemi, and imec highlight the growing flexibility of Ultra-Wideband (UWB) technology and its ability to support numerous consumer and enterprise use cases. This ABI Insight will summarize the major announcements, assess their impact, and provide recommendations on how the industry can overcome remaining hurdles to adoption in the coming years.

The Arrival of UWB Combo Chipsets, Continued Technology Innovation, and Interoperable Use Cases


The most significant announcement came from Qualcomm, which introduced its FastConnect™ 7900 Mobile Connectivity System, an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enhanced connectivity chip that combines Wi-Fi 7, Bluetooth® 5.4, and 802.15.4z-based UWB. While UWB volumes in the smartphone sector are already approaching 300 million units in 2023 (thanks to Apple’s support from the iPhone 11 onward via its own UWB chip, and other UWB solution providers such as Qorvo and NXP being adopted in devices such as the Google Pixel 6/7/8 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S21/S22/S23/S24 Plus and Ultra), this has been reserved for flagship or premium tier solutions.

Much like with other technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth® and, to a lesser extent, Near Field Communication (NFC), if UWB is to become the next mainstream short-range wireless technology in the smartphone space, it will need to transcend flagship devices and become available in all price points over time. While this will not happen with Qualcomm’s chip overnight, it shows that UWB technology is here to stay, and the impressive single 6 Nanometer (nm) chip has the potential to bring about additional cost, size, interference mitigation, and power consumption benefits, which may have hindered adoption beyond the flagship tier to date. With Samsung also having developed its own UWB solution in 2023 via its Exynos Connect U100, this could also put additional pressure on vendors such as MediaTek to partner with UWB solution providers or develop its own solution in this space. Much like with the introduction of Bluetooth® Low Energy (LE) over a decade ago, much of the success of UWB will depend on its ability to have a high penetration rate within mobile devices. Once this is the case, thanks to UWB’s ability to support multiple functionalities, including secure ranging, sensing and radar, and low-latency networking/data capabilities, this could propel a whole new wave of UWB-enabled devices that can interact with smartphones, including personal trackers, audio devices, door locks, vehicle access, home entertainment devices, and many others. The FastConnect™ 7900 solution is also targeting the Personal Computer (PC) and Extended Reality (XR) markets, potentially bringing additional localization and ranging capabilities to this space.

Shenzhen Giant Microelectronics, also known as GiantSemi, unveiled its latest generation UWB chipset ahead of MWC 24. The company’s GT1500 UWB System-on-Chip (SoC) is claimed to be the world's smallest UWB single-chip SoC with a footprint of just 9 Square Millimeters (mm2). In addition to targeting positioning and ranging applications, the solution supports data rates of up to 31.2 Megabits per Second (Mbps), which it believes will open up new use cases for the technology. The company is mainly targeting space-constrained wearable and IoT devices, while partner companies at the show demonstrated and highlighted applications such as UWB tags with enhanced battery life, unlimited tag tracking via downlink Time Difference of Arrival (TDoA), and lossless UWB wireless audio.

Also at MWC 24, leading connectivity Intellectual Property (IP) provider CEVA announced the general release of its RivieraWaves® UWB IP platform supporting the latest FiRa 2.0 specification released by the FiRa Consortium in November 2023. The 2.0 specification is focused on developing interoperable solutions for untracked indoor navigation (enabling UWB smartphone users to navigate to Centimeter (cm) level privately), find someone/something (enabling UWB users to find friends, luggage or items, or be located more accurately by ride-share drivers), and point and trigger use cases (controlling connected appliances such as Televisions (TVs), lighting, and thermostats by pointing their mobile or smartwatch at them to interact. CEVA’s solution also features an interference cancellation scheme to enable better performance for highly accurate location, even within high-density wireless environments where other technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth® are already well entrenched, e.g., the smart home or factory floor.

Lastly, at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference (IEEE ISSCC2024), imec presented a low-power UWB receiver chip with 10X more resilience against interference from Wi-Fi and 5G signals than existing UWB solutions. This is particularly important during a time when Wi-Fi and cellular technologies are increasingly being deployed in the 6 Gigahertz (GHz) band where UWB partly operates. As a result, imec, much like CEVA, is working to take proactive measures to prevent interference issues and enable UWB to be leveraged for more safety-critical applications in automotive and industrial automation applications. Alongside high interference resilience, imec’s solution can enable the receiver analog front end to operate up to 10X longer on the same battery when compared with existing solutions.

Solid Foundations from Which to Build a Scalable, Multi-Functional, Ubiquitous Technology


Combined, these recent announcements are vital steps toward enabling a scalable, interoperable, UWB ecosystem that is capable of providing high-performance positioning, sensing, and data communications across a number of consumer and enterprise applications. They point to growing momentum for UWB technology, compounded by recent investments in UWB from numerous large-scale chipset providers, including Infineon, STMicroelectronics, NXP, Qualcomm, Qorvo, and Samsung, alongside new entrants in the market such as Chipsbank, GiantSemi, MKSemi, New Ruixin Technology, NOVELDA, and Ultraception. Alongside this, UWB technology is evolving at a rapid pace, with ongoing development of UWB Next Generation (IEEE 802.15.4ab) and continued technical innovations from the leading vendors and industry consortia. These enhancements, including added channels and operating frequencies, interference mitigation techniques, and sensing capabilities, will help enable UWB to support a greater range of use cases, such as those that require greater device density, low-power consumption, or high data rate streaming.

It is clear that UWB is still in its relatively early days of adoption. Furthermore, the technology has had somewhat of a backward rollout compared to traditional adoption cycles for new technologies. Often, there is a killer use case or application that enables a technology to be embedded. For Bluetooth®, it was audio; for Bluetooth® LE, it was connectivity to wearables and peripherals (and has since expanded rapidly); and for NFC, it was mobile payments. However, UWB has arguably been widely adopted in smartphones without a current killer use case. While automotive keyless entry has been the primary focus and adoption is growing, the number of smartphone users with UWB will significantly outweigh those who have purchased a compatible vehicle. Similarly, while UWB brings benefits to the personal tracker space, it is not an original use case, and is unlikely to be compelling enough for a user to choose a UWB-enabled phone over one that is not, particularly if this comes at additional cost. There is also, of course, the potential for UWB to be used as a lossless audio solution, and some smartphone vendors may develop a premium UWB headset to work alongside their flagship devices to provide a higher quality audio experience. However, Bluetooth® currently dominates the market here, and it may be difficult to become entrenched in this space, particularly with the arrival of LE Audio innovation and new Wi-Fi-based audio solutions from Qualcomm. Even when talking with UWB chipset vendors, it is clear that they do not yet know what the killer use case and application will be that will drive the technology.

However, what UWB has is potential. By embedding the technology in smartphones and other source devices such as PCs, tablets, smartwatches, and other areas, the hope is that it will kickstart a new ecosystem of UWB-connected devices that can provide unique benefits over alternative technologies. The multi-functional capabilities of UWB make it particularly compelling, and ABI Research believes this technology, particularly as it matures, has the potential to enable unique use cases across the realms of positioning, ranging, radar and sensing, and low-latency connectivity. To achieve this, the technology must be embedded across more and more smartphones, and continue to improve performance and power efficiency, alongside reductions in cost, complexity, and size. Furthermore, organizations such as the FiRa Consortium, as well as member companies, must work together to identify the most promising UWB use cases and create interoperable ecosystems that can enable valuable new services and experiences across the consumer and enterprise spaces.