New wireless tech heralds the age of ‘Internet Everywhere ’

As our news­room upgrades its com­put­ers this year, we’re replac­ing the old PowerBooks that some reporters use with nice Windows lap­tops. Included in that upgrade are Wi-Fi net­work cards.

The idea, of course, is that a reporter out on assign­ment could get to a Wi-Fi hotspot — a hotel or Starbucks, for instance — and file the sto­ry from there over the Net.

This replaces the cur­rent method, in which you hook ye olde PowerBook to a cell phone and dial up a modem in the newsroom.

What’s fun­ny is that, as clunky as the old sys­tem was, it let you file from any spot that had cell phone ser­vice. Sure, the con­nec­tion was slow and the pro­ce­dure awk­ward, but it worked. The new Windows/Wi-Fi sys­tem is a lot slick­er and faster, but because Wi-Fi only has a range of about 300 feet, you need to find a hotspot to file.

What we real­ly need is broad­band wire­less every­where, not just in hotspots. Kind of the way cell ser­vice is. Sure, there are dead zones with cell ser­vice, but by and large, if you use a major provider you can make a call from most of the country.

Luckily, there’s plen­ty being done to help real­ize the dream of ubiq­ui­tous mobile wire­less broad­band — a few megabits per sec­ond from any street or build­ing. It would pro­vide the wide­spread con­nec­tion we expect for our cell phones, but with high-speed Internet access.

Wireless broad­band at that speed would enable some very cool things:

  • At 3 Mbps you can get DVD-qual­i­ty video streamed to the back of the mini­van, so your kids could watch TV while you drove in peace.
  • Emergency ser­vices would be able to trans­mit all sorts of infor­ma­tion, includ­ing patient sta­tus while en route to a hos­pi­tal, maps for fire and res­cue units, as well as real-time images and video to police.

And that’s just imag­in­ing how we would adopt cur­rent ideas. New ones would pop up. The idea of vir­tu­al graf­fi­ti intrigues me. You stand in front of a store with your broad­band-con­nect­ed PDA. Maybe some­one who stood in the same spot has post­ed a dig­i­tal note linked to your lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude: “Cute sales­girl here, but bet­ter prices at Sandra’s Cellar around the corner.”

More cre­ative peo­ple than I could prob­a­bly come up with some neat ideas for peo­ple with pock­et com­put­ers that are con­nect­ed to the Net and have GPS devices. Geocaching, which only requires a plain old GPS receiv­er, is already enter­tain­ing those with an appetite for adventure.

Add some gad­gets and you could play city-wide games with equal­ly equipped adven­tur­ers. Real-time, video-enabled hide-and-seek, anyone?

All this is com­ing in the next few years as var­i­ous tech­nolo­gies are released, mature, and drop in price. But first we need that broad­band connection.

Cells and more

The cell phone com­pa­nies are start­ing down that road with tech­nolo­gies such as Verizon’s 1xRTT (80–150 Kbps) or Cingular’s EDGE ser­vice (up to 135 Kbps). Both are avail­able in most of the country.

Next are faster con­nec­tions from those folks, such as EVDO from Verizon and HSDPA from Cingular. Today they do about 400–700 Kbps and are avail­able in some major mar­kets (Verizon’s EVDO is in about 45 cities). Tomorrow they promise 1.5 to 3.0 Mbps.

But cell com­pa­nies are ham­strung by think­ing of things in terms of air­time, where­as the rest of the world thinks of con­nec­tions as too cheap to meter. You don’t pay per hour for TV, and there are few Internet plans that aren’t flat-rate.

Not so for cell plans, even data ones.

And while there’s a stan­dard for Wi-Fi, cell car­ri­ers’ stuff is pro­pri­etary. You’re a Cingular cus­tomer, peri­od. No Cingular cov­er­age, no luck. With Wi-Fi, though, if there’s no Starbucks, maybe there’s a hotel. Or a cam­pus. Or some­thing else.

There are long-range suc­ces­sors to Wi-Fi in the works — tech­nolo­gies that will give us a wire­less met­ro­pol­i­tan-area net­work, or WMAN.

The name tossed around a lot is WiMax , oth­er­wise known by the mem­o­rable moniker “802.16.” In fact, there are a few vari­a­tions: 802.16, 802.16a, and (com­ing soon) 802.16e.

The first two ver­sions are enough to get WiMax on the map. They spec­i­fy a point-to-point wire­less net­work with broad­band speeds, and get every­one excit­ed about the idea of long-range mobile wire­less broadband.
The key phrase, though, is “point to point.” WiMax isn’t mobile. It’s a way of con­nect­ing a high-speed net­work over a long dis­tance, as long as both ends of the con­nec­tion are stationary.

Not that this is any­thing to sneeze at. Control of the “last mile” has been a tech­no­log­i­cal and legal issue for phone and cable com­pa­nies. WiMax neat­ly steps over it.

But today’s WiMax, imple­ment­ed by com­pa­nies such as TowerStream , isn’t mobile. And it’s going to take a while before it could be.

“It will be years before WiMax is cer­ti­fied by oper­a­tors’ engi­neer­ing teams and deemed fea­si­ble for mobile ser­vices,” Ed Knapp told me. “It takes at least 2–3 years to take a spec­i­fi­ca­tion to a field-deploy­able net­work ser­vice. This means that the ear­li­est we would encounter mobile WiMax is late 2008 or 2009, even if the stan­dard is rat­i­fied by ear­ly 2006.”

Knapp may or may not be accu­rate. Predicting tech­nol­o­gy is some­times like pre­dict­ing the weath­er — try to go too far into the future and you might as well read tea leaves.
Knapp also has a horse in this race. He’s senior vice pres­i­dent for mar­ket devel­op­ment for Flarion .

Beyond Wi-Fi

Flarion is already deploy­ing mobile broad­band in a few cities using a tech­nol­o­gy it devel­oped that’s based on a pro­to­col called 802.20. It does­n’t have a fan­cy name like “WiMax” — Flarion calls it “Flash-OFDM” — but it’s real and it’s working.

Later this year, you’ll be able to sign up for the ser­vice with a local phone com­pa­ny near the cam­pus of Virginia Tech. For $40 a month you can roam the streets and build­ings in the area with a broad­band con­nec­tion to your lap­top. The whole uni­ver­si­ty town of Blacksburg, Va., will be a hotspot.

The sys­tem has been test­ed in a few oth­er places, includ­ing Raleigh, N.C., and Amarillo, Tex.
OFDM has some advan­tages over WiMax. It takes few­er anten­nas to cov­er the same area, and it is less sub­ject to inter­fer­ence. But mobile WiMax has the cool name and indus­try sup­port, even if it won’t even start to deploy till 2007.

Competition like this is a good thing, as is hav­ing a vari­ety of tech­nolo­gies for mobile broad­band over­lap­ping. And “over­lap­ping” is the word. All these sys­tems will be able to work with one anoth­er and Wi-Fi hotspots.

That means that your com­put­er will be sniff­ing the air con­stant­ly, look­ing for the best avail­able con­nec­tion to the Net. In a Starbucks? It will have you on Wi-Fi. Driving through down­town? It will pick up the munic­i­pal OFDM or WiMax sig­nal. Leave the city? It will find the fastest cell connection.

That’s the future we’re head­ing for: A high-speed con­nec­tion to the Net just about every­where, in the air itself. Seamless and trans­par­ent. Data always at our fin­ger­tips, whether we’re get­ting it or shar­ing it.
The impli­ca­tions are stag­ger­ing, and unknow­able. Commerce, enter­tain­ment, pri­va­cy, news — all of it will change. And the cool thing is, it’s just around the corner.