The Year of Wire-Bound Internet

It’s almost the traditional time to make technology predictions for the New Year. You will likely encounter numerous prognostications for the new decade and the new millennium. I thought I’d beat the holiday rush and make a negative prediction: Next year, for the fifth year in a row, it will not be "The Year of Wireless Internet."

The quality of laptop technology is amazing, but connecting a CEO’s ThinkPad to the corporate network while they’re away from the office almost always requires a modem, a phone jack and the umbilical cord connecting the two. If your CEO is on the road -- really on the road: in a plane, train or automobile -- making a connection to the Internet can be slow, expensive, or impossible.

Wireless Internet access has been available for quite a while, but it is too slow for anyone familiar with traditional landline technology -- nearly all of us. Worse yet, attaching a cellular phone to a laptop doesn’t work everywhere. Today’s wireless technology is based on a smorgasbord of divergent standards each used in different regions of the world.

What we need is a change in wireless Internet technology that makes it possible to use e-mail, file exchange, e-commerce and multimedia anywhere and at any time, without being tethered to the traditional phone network.

That technology is around the corner. Not next year, I’m certain, but soon enough that you should be keeping an eye on the technology. Around the world an ambitious project called third-generation (3G) wireless promises high-speed Internet service in a standard fashion. It is important because the volume of wireless data traffic is expected to outstrip voice traffic in 2001. On the consumer side, Forrester Research predicts spending on wireless data services will grow from $100 million this year to $8.4 billion in 2005.

The second generation of wireless technology has been available since the early 1990s. This level of data communication uses wireless modems. These are usually PC Card adapters that work much like traditional modems except they are entirely digital. The wireless modem makes it possible to connect to the Internet over analog or digital wireless voice channels using any of the major second-generation technologies.

Once the limitations of the second-generation services became obvious -- that is, once people started using them -- the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) proposed a new set of wireless standards to eliminate the conflicting standards that limit the potential of wireless Internet access.

When that day comes, the 3G wireless networks will transmit data at 144 Kbps for fast moving mobile users in cars, trains and planes and up to 2.05 Mbps from fixed locations. A variety of technologies will make the new 3G systems possible, most significant are recent increases in chip transmission and reception rates.

The promise of 3G wireless networks is just that: a promise. While some vendors are working to bring 3G-compliant mobile technology to market next year, the ITU probably won’t finish the standards until 2001. In some places the prospects for transition to 3G wireless data networking is likely to be swift. In these cases the reason is not necessarily a desire for newer technologies and services but rather because of the technical limitations of the older technologies. In Japan, for instance, the demand for traditional forms of wireless service is so great the country is running out of second-generation wireless capacity.

In North America the situation is complicated by the fact that there is so much competition between companies that have invested in the competing, older standards. It will be difficult for big telecommunications firms to scrap their existing infrastructure and move to 3G wireless services while they still have investments in the older technology.

The holiday rush will soon be upon us and many busy executives will discover the latest wireless Internet gadget in their corporate stocking. The success of attaching personal digital assistants (PDAs) or Windows CE devices to the Internet to grab corporate data or e-mail will only continue to grow. Cell phones and beepers have suddenly blossomed into multifunction devices that can send e-mail, browse the Internet and even replace PDAs.

Alas, the underlying network hasn’t kept up with the astonishing growth and development in user devices. Instead, each wireless device connects to the Internet in its own haphazard way. What’s needed is a standard, compatible, high-bandwidth connection for our increasingly mobile users. It’s on the way, but next year still won’t be The Year of the Wireless Internet. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at mcfadden@cix.org.