Why wireless means mobile (and broadband)

Mobile broadband is still rare, but will be commonplace in a few years

We take mobility for granted when talk turns to wireless. Yet the roots of wireless are in fundamentally fixed applications. Fixed, in this case, refers to wireless configurations where both ends of a given connection are attached to given points on the Earth. This takes us back to the early days of radio, when batteries were uncommon and electrical power was required because of the power-hungry nature of early (mostly vacuum-tube) electronics. Radio was used primarily to implement government/military systems, commercial broadcasting and point-to-point relay stations. A good example of the latter are the early Bell System long-distance links.

Fixed still makes a lot of sense, and indeed, the current WiMax specification, based on the IEEE 802.16-2004 standard, covers only fixed point-to-point and point-to-multipoint implementations. WiMax is really a formalization and standardization, then, of the concept that is at the roots of radio communications itself -- providing relatively long-range links to specific locations. This is not that different, of course, from how we thought of telephony up to the time cellular was invented. But, of course, even cellular was initially used to provision specific locations -- in this case, moving vehicles. Like early radio implementations, the first cellular systems were too big, too heavy and too power-hungry to be truly portable.

But the wonder that is very-large-scale integrated circuits (VLSI) came into play in wireless in much the same way that it had in all other areas of high tech -- reducing size, cost, complexity and, again, power consumption, by making small, battery-operated computing and communication devices a reality. These fit quite nicely with the technology of cellular, but they fundamentally shifted the paradigm from provisioning a location, as is the basis of fixed wireless deployments, to provisioning an individual -- and the era of personal wireless communications was born.

The result has been positively transforming. We no longer think of "looking for a phone." In fact, just try to find a pay phone when your cell battery has died. A rapidly increasing number of people use their cell phones as their primary, or only, phone, and Farpoint Group estimates this number will grow to 40% of cell phone users over the next 10 years. Part of the reason for this will be the improving capacity, availability and reliability of cellular communications, along with the convenience factor and the general reduction in costs due to no longer needing a voice telephone line.

Perhaps surprisingly, something very similar is happening in broadband. While mobile broadband access remains rare today, due to the high cost of cellular-based services and the limited availability of metro-scale Wi-Fi services, it's going to become a lot more common over the next few years because that's what customers want.

Just as we provision voice to a given individual, so should we also provision broadband data. And we now have the technology to do so. EV-DO and HSDPA, two high-speed wireless data services, are available in this country today. WiBRO, the forerunner of mobile WiMax, is up and running in Korea. Want more -- even a lot more? NTT DoCoMo, the major wireless operator in Japan, recently announced that it had achieved speeds of 2.5Gbit/sec. in tests of new 4G technologies. Others have reported throughput of 1Gbit/sec., and the recent formalization of EV-DO Rev C as UMB (Ultra Mobile Broadband) with throughput of up to 280Mbit/sec. is both a shot across the bow of the good ship WiMax as well as an indication that truly mobile broadband is just around the corner. No more looking for a cable or xDSL connection. No more being tied to a place for anything having to do with communications of any form.

And while clearly a challenge to all that wire in the ground and strung on poles, this situation also does not bode well for the future of fixed wireless. While I expect that fixed WiMax will have some impact on rural areas and particularly offshore venues and developing economies, even these markets are going to demand mobile broadband over time. Eventually, we won't think twice about having enormous throughput in the palms of our hands.

In the interim, the key challenges remain the availability of spectrum and its cost. How much will carriers have to charge an individual customer for 2Mbit/sec. (let alone 200Mbit/sec.) of throughput? The key, of course, is to converge the coverage of cellular with the capacity of -- you guessed it -- wireless LANs. Such is the only hope for reasonable prices beyond the ability of competition to serve its usual purpose here.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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