- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Fairfax resident Michael Kelley expects to be able to connect to the Internet through completely portable and mobile broadband access in one to two years.

“Now, you have to sit down and be at one location to be connected,” says Mr. Kelley, professor of telecommunications and English at George Mason University in Fairfax. “You can’t get in your car and stay connected. All the wire and broadband you can’t drag behind your car.”

Mr. Kelley expects a proposed Federal Communications Commission ruling this summer to be the next entry point for wireless technology.

The FCC proposes dedicating vacant space in the broadcast television spectrum — a portion of the radio-wave region of the electromagnetic spectrum — for use by unlicensed broadband devices and Internet service providers. The television spectrum, or band, transmits signals farther than the area of the spectrum currently licensed for broadband. Licensed spectrum is purchased at auction from the FCC, allowing companies to use certain airwaves. Unlicensed spectrum is for public uses such as cordless phones and garage-door openers.

“It’s a waste of a valuable resource when people are clamoring for more spectrum,” Mr. Kelley says.

Broadband, a measure of bandwidth, uses a wide band of electromagnetic frequencies. It can carry a large amount of data through wired or wireless mediums, matching or exceeding the speed of digital subscriber lines (DSL). Electromagnetic frequencies are measured in cycles per second, but for technological uses, they are measured in bits of information per second.

DSL, a wired medium fixed to a phone line, carries data at an average speed of 350 kilobits (a kilobit is 1,000 bits) per second; cable, 1 megabit (1 million bits) per second. DSL and cable act as modems, devices that convert data from one form into another to allow the transmission of that data. The slowest medium, a dial-up modem connected to a telephone line, carries data at a maximum speed of 56 kilobits per second.

“We see a day where you, as a consumer, can be completely mobile and have fast access to the Internet for all of your computer and communication needs,” says Julie Coppernoll, director of marketing for the Wireless Networking Group at Intel Corp., a semiconductor equipment manufacturer based in Portland, Ore.

That mobility, she says, can be achieved by opening up the existing spectrum for additional uses and by developing technology that takes advantage of current spectrum uses.

One such development is expanding Wi-Fi, or “wireless fidelity,” hot spots into wireless microwave access (WIMAX). The Wi-Fi hot spots are wireless Internet access points found at places such as coffee shops, restaurants and airports, along with in-home networks that have Wi-Fi equipment installed. Wi-Fi uses unlicensed radio spectrum and typically has a 300-foot signal range.

Customers in a Wi-Fi area pay a fee, monthly subscription or nothing to connect to the access point, as long as they have a Wi-Fi-trademarked device, which is built in or optional in some laptops or can be found in a PC card that comes with the unit or can be inserted into the computer’s slot.

WIMAX, the step beyond Wi-Fi, is in development phases, with trials of the technology likely next year and actual deployment in 2006, Ms. Coppernoll says. WIMAX, as envisioned, will provide larger blankets of wireless access in urban and rural areas, theoretically up to 20 miles, but more likely at three to six miles, she says. WIMAX likely will provide an access speed of 11 to 54 megabits per second, compared with Wi-Fi’s 6 megabits per second, she says.

“Wi-Fi can give you higher speeds and no mobility, and cellular can give you mobility at somewhat slower speeds,” says John Johnson, director of corporate communications for Verizon, based in Laurel. “You couldn’t jump on a train and use your Wi-Fi connection. It’s essentially fixed wireless.”

Cellular phone users can access the Internet either by using the handset as a modem connected to a laptop or connecting directly through the handset’s touch pad with Internet data transmitted in text form, as long as the carriers provide the services.

“Most of the wireless networks that are out there don’t have the same throughput, or speed, to give you the exact same experience as you do have on your laptop,” says Kevin Hussey, director of wireless data for Nextel Communications, based in Reston.

Cellular phones generally lack a laptop’s keyboard, making it inconvenient to access the Internet, says Alan Reiter, president and founder of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing, a consulting firm for wireless data communications based in Chevy Chase.

Mr. Reiter points to the Research in Motion BlackBerry and the PalmOne wireless hand-held devices, which combine a mobile phone and handset for typing in data, and he says he expects cellular companies to develop similar products this year.

“For people who want to send messages, keyboards on your phone make a big difference,” he says.

Cellular carriers are improving their phones’ other capabilities, including audio and video, live television, camera and game functions.

“The common theme is a richer experience for the end user, and that’s being brought about by enhanced devices,” says Dale Knoop, manager of multimedia services for Sprint, based in Overland Park, Kan.

Another theme is “invisible” technology, says Phil McCoog, technology strategist for consumer imaging and printing for Hewlett-Packard Co., based in Vancouver, Wash. “We’re going to transition from thinking about technology to the compelling experience where technology is invisible,” he says.

For instance, Wi-Fi is available in the home but is difficult to set up and maintain and is used mostly by those interested in “techie gadgets,” says Mr. McCoog, who adds that within the next year, Wi-Fi should be easier to use. “If we’re doing our job right, all our technology will become seamless,” he says.

The wiring already is on that path.

“This whole wireless-data movement is freeing us up from the cables, so you have access to that information anytime, anywhere, as long as you have the wireless device with you,” Mr. Hussey says.

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