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: 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.