Nearly 5 Years after the First UWB Smartphone, Is the Technology Flourishing or Floundering?

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By Andrew Zignani | 2Q 2024 | IN-7365

This ABI Insight evaluates the current state of the Ultra-Wideband (UWB) ecosystem and what it will take for the market to scale further in the coming years.

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UWB Devices Continue to Arrive, but Has the Market Stalled?


The iPhone 11, released in September 2019, was the first smartphone to come equipped with the latest form of Ultra-Wideband (UWB) technology, based on the 802.15.4z standard. Since then, Apple’s first generation U1 UWB chip has been incorporated into all models within the iPhone 12 to iPhone 14 series, up until the iPhone 15 for which Apple’s second generation U2 chip began to be adopted. The U2 chip brings numerous enhancements over its predecessor, including a 3X increase in range, lower power consumption, a smaller form factor, and enhanced overall performance. Other adopters of UWB technology in the mobile space include Google via its Pixel 6 Pro, 7 Pro, and 8 Pro Series, Samsung’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra, the Galaxy S21, S22, S23, and S23 Plus and Ultra models, and the Galaxy ZFold2, 3, 4, and 5. Other vendors such as Xiaomi have continually showed their intent to invest in the UWB ecosystem, although, to date, their sole smartphone leveraging the technology is the MIX4. Meanwhile, the newest entrant to the UWB smartphone market is Motorola, which released its Edge 50 in April 2024. Beyond smartphones, the next biggest success has been smartwatches, again driven by Apple’s U1 and U2 chips from the Watch Series 6 onward. Beyond this, personal tracking devices including Apple’s AirTags and Samsung’s Galaxy SmartTags, as well as adoption within headset charging cases, smart speakers, and a Google tablet, make up the majority of the non-automotive and non-Real-Time Location System (RTLS) UWB devices on the market today. While it has been nearly 5 years since the first device arrived, key vendors in this space continue to restrict UWB to their flagship devices. Furthermore, the majority of the market has been driven by Apple and Samsung, with other large-scale smartphone vendors yet to adopt UWB technology in their latest models. This has meant that for the last couple of years, adoption of UWB has remained relatively steady, and there has not been the sharp ramp up in device availability, which will be necessary for accelerating the wider UWB market. This has been further exacerbated by a weakening smartphone market overall. While UWB penetration in the smartphone market between 2022 and 2023 grew from 21% to 25% of all smartphones from a volume perspective, the total UWB market grew by around 18% in 2023 compared to 2022, from 352 million devices to nearly 417 million. The question then remains, is the UWB market floundering, or is this just growing pains?

Momentum Is Growing for the Broader Ecosystem, but Challenges Remain


On a positive note, there is clearly a growing ecosystem of UWB solution providers that all see the potential in the technology across a variety of applications. In addition to Apple and Samsung, which have developed their own chipsets, other UWB solution providers include Qorvo, Qualcomm, NXP, STMicroelectronics, Infineon, Imec, SPARK Microsystems, NOVELDA, Mauna Kea Semiconductors, GiantSemi, Ultraception, Changsha Chixin, and Chipsbank. The ecosystem also contains several Internet Protocol (IP) providers, including CEVA and Packetcraft. Some of these vendors, such as Qualcomm, have only just released their first UWB chipsets into the market, whereas others are still developing their product portfolios, with solutions set to arrive in the next 12 to 24 months. There are also vendors optimizing for specific applications or focusing on domestic markets. These new entrants will lead to the development of a hugely competitive UWB landscape, drive improvements in technology, reduce costs, and provide product designers with a wide availability of chipsets to choose from depending on their target application. All of these will be vital in building a successful ecosystem at the mobile device, automotive, and peripheral and accessory segments.

Meanwhile, performance continues to improve. Chipset innovation will be vital in ensuring the long-term success of the technology across a variety of metrics, including performance, size, power consumption, positioning accuracy, robustness, range, cost, multi-function capabilities, and integration with other technologies. For example, Apple’s U2 chip is a 7 Nanometer (nm) solution, compared to the 16 nm U1 chip. GiantSemi’s latest generation 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). Imec’s latest UWB solution provides 10X more resilience against interference from Wi-Fi and 5G signals than existing UWB solutions and can operate up to 10X longer on the same battery compared to existing solutions. Qualcomm’s FastConnect™ 7900 Mobile Connectivity System combines Wi-Fi 7, Bluetooth® 5.4, and UWB into a single 6 nm chip that also integrates Artificial Intelligence (AI) features. Increasingly, UWB solution providers are offering multi-functional solutions that can support secure ranging, sensing and radar, and low-latency networking/data capabilities. For example, NXP’s Trimension NCJ29D6A is the first monolithic UWB chip for automotive markets that combines secure localization and short-range radar with an integrated Microcontroller Unit (MCU). This enables Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to leverage the in-vehicle UWB solution for several use cases, including child presence detection and secure car access control.

At this point, it is worth remembering that the UWB market is still very much in its infancy and there have already been huge leaps across many of these different metrics. This will only accelerate as competition increases, vendors continue to specialize and differentiate, and the technology matures at both the standards level and within industry consortia such as the FiRa Consortium. Based on its current trajectory and the rollout of UWB technology across different applications, ABI Research expects annual UWB-enabled device shipments to grow from the 416.6 million witnessed in 2023 to just under 1.1 billion in 2028. However, there is potential for certain applications to grow more rapidly if the ecosystem accelerates in these key areas.

What Is Required to Build a Successful UWB Ecosystem?


Given the relative immaturity of UWB technology, many things need to be developed in order to ensure the long-term success of the technology, including the following:

  • A Swifter Transition beyond Flagship Smartphones: Much like with other short-range wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth®, and Near Field Communication (NFC), if UWB is to become a key mainstream short-range wireless technology in the smartphone space, it will need to transcend flagship devices and become available at all price points over time. The wide availability of chipsets for smartphones from Qualcomm, NXP, Qorvo, and Samsung is encouraging and should open this up to new device tiers in the next 12 to 24 months.
  • Explore Non-Smartphone Source Use Cases: While smartphones remain the largest market today, vendors should also explore the potential role UWB has to play in other key source areas such as Personal Computers (PCs), tablets, Televisions (TVs), and the wider appliance market. This will likely be a combination of positioning, radar, and data-based functionality. This will also further incentivize the development of UWB peripherals and accessories such as tracking devices, audio devices, peripherals, and controller devices, as well as embedding UWB within a wide range of mainstream consumer products to enable location functionality.
  • The Creation of Compelling “Killer” Use Cases: UWB has a number of different features that will enable it to target a diverse range of use cases. Over time, new ones will emerge as more and more smartphones support the technology. However, the ecosystem will need to identify key use cases for UWB that set it apart from the competition and can justify the additional investment. For personal trackers, this is currently a “nice to have,” but it is difficult to imagine this as a key differentiator for consumers when choosing whether to buy a UWB-enabled device, particularly when Bluetooth® and upcoming Channel Sounding support will enhance performance here. On the other hand, UWB’s ability to support multiple potential use cases, including tracking, sensing and radar, access control, point-and-trigger applications, payments, and low latency connectivity, could make it very compelling. Either way, the technology has yet to resonate with the mainstream consumer market, and familiarity remains relatively low compared to other wireless technologies.
  • Maximizing the Multi-Functional Potential: UWB needs to maximize its multi-functional capabilities to provide solutions that can offer secure ranging, radar and sensing, and low-latency connectivity. This could also lead to creating new use cases that other technologies are incapable of supporting. In addition, it also enables certain applications such as deployments within vehicles to benefit in multiple ways from embedding the technology.
  • The Need for Additional Spectrum: Given the bands and channels in which UWB operates, a potential risk for the UWB ecosystem is a regulatory environment that favors alternative technologies and may restrict the technology’s long-term performance and potential. It is essential that there is a favorable regulatory environment for UWB technology, and it must work alongside other technologies to coexist and ensure they can work together effectively long into the future.
  • Specialized Tailored Solutions: Given the diversity of UWB applications, there is an increasing need for specialized solutions that are strongly suited to specific markets. As with other technologies, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth® solutions are heavily customized to fit specific requirements. This can include smaller form factors, extended range capabilities, lower costs, ultra-low power consumption, and many others.
  • Integration with Multiple Technologies: UWB will work alongside Bluetooth®, Wi-Fi, NFC, and 802.15.4 within many applications. The availability of multi-protocol UWB Integrated Circuits (ICs) is likely to continue to emerge to provide more integrated, cost-effective, simple to deploy, and better performing solutions that combine the best of each individual technology.
  • Interoperability: Critical to the success of UWB, much like with other wireless technologies, is the formation of an interoperable ecosystem where chipsets or devices from one vendor can effectively communicate with those from another. This is a particular challenge for the technology due to its multi-functional nature, as well as chipsets that operate in different bands or channels. At the same time, organizations such as the FiRa Consortium must play an active role in shaping the upper layer communications and developing profiles to ensure the that most compelling use cases can be addressed quickly and help scale the market forward. Alongside this, the UWB industry must ensure there is a compelling user experience across the different applications, ranging from personal tracking to access control to point-and-trigger and data-based use cases.
  • Continued Standards Evolution: While it seems like 802.15.4z has barely arrived in the market, the IEEE is already hard at work in developing the next generation of UWB technology. IEEE 802.15 Task Group 4ab, also known as the UWB Next Generation, was formed in 2021 and is building on 802.15.4-2020 and 802.15.4z-2020 to bring several PHY/MAC-related ranging enhancements to the technology. The intention is to expand the standard and enable it to target a wider range of applications, while maintaining backward compatibility. It also takes advantage of UWB’s growing presence across a number of fine-ranging applications, as well as the use of UWB in sensing and data-related applications. Much like other technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth®, UWB must continue to develop and evolve its features over time in order to stay relevant and maximize the potential of the technology. Here, there is also a fine line to walk with other industry organizations such as the UWB Alliance, the FiRa Consortium, and the Car Connectivity Consortium, among others, to ensure a smooth rollout of new features and guaranteed interoperability.