Ultra-Wideband Gets a Breakthrough

Samsung’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra is the first Android smartphone with the technology

In August 2020, Samsung unveiled its Galaxy Note20 Ultra, an impressive 5G-ready Android smartphone cleverly stuffed with many of the latest components, creating an extremely smooth experience (see Instant Insight: Samsung Launches Galaxy Note20 Series and Galaxy Z Fold2). But one feature that stands out is Samsung’s inclusion of ultra-wideband technology, a short-range communication technology that’s starting to pop up in a growing number of devices.

Ultra-wideband technology isn’t new. It’s been around since the early 2000s, when it saw limited use in military radars and covert communication and was used briefly for medical imaging. But it was in 2019 that ultra-wideband gained much wider attention, with the launch of the first smartphones to show off the technology: Apple’s iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Ultra-wideband is in the same category as other local communication technologies such as Bluetooth, but also differs substantially as it operates at a very high frequency. As its name suggests, it uses a wide spectrum of several GHz, usually ranging from 6 GHz to 8.5 GHz, but is a short-range, wireless communication protocol. Compared with other protocols, ultra-wideband is more precise, uses less power and, as economies of scale kick in with volumes, holds the promise of reaching lower prices.

With the launch of Samsung’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra, which is the first Android smartphone to feature the wireless protocol, ultra-wideband has gained further recognition in smartphone circles. Now, the same technology that enables users of Apple’s iPhone 11 series to transfer files through AirDrop by pointing one device at another is entering the Android world, the platform that runs the vast majority of smartphones around the globe. Samsung’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra phones will enable the same type of functionality of easily moving files from one Note20 Ultra to another. Samsung is also expanding the uses of ultra-wideband as other products come to market.

Ultra-wideband technology is partly governed by the FiRa Consortium, which looks to further the development and widespread adoption of the communication protocol, as well as addressing interoperability and certification. Another industry group, the UWB Alliance, will act as a promoter. Like other local communication technologies, ultra-wideband is based on an IEEE radio technology, IEEE 802.15.4z.

The FiRa Consortium — FiRa stands for fine ranging — sees several uses for the technology, including hands-free access, location-based services and device-to-device services. For example, a device enabled with ultra-wideband can be used to unlock a car like a key fob or allow hands-free entrance to a building. Or, a smartphone equipped with the technology could allow a user to access a bank account through a cash machine. These uses can come in handy during the Covid-19 pandemic, as hands-free access is being heralded at places including banks, hotels and many more.

Ultra-wideband isn’t necessarily a flashy new “killer” technology, but it will work behind-the-scenes inside phones to power features that will become important as we end up using our devices in different ways.

Having been welcomed by Apple and now Samsung, ultra-wideband is taking baby steps toward wider integration. But with two of the world’s most influential smartphone brands now supporting the technology, along with many makers of Internet of things devices, ultra-wideband technology could soon gain ultra-acceptance across smartphone brands.