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It's A Wireless World

We grew up in a world where doctors had to leave the telephone number of the restaurant with their "service" so that the service could be track them down in an emergency. We now live in a world where anybody can work almost anywhere and be completely wired and ready to go.

If poolside is your thing, then the first lesson of the day is that you still have to carry several devices to the pool-rather than one wireless beast. You need enough lap space to balance your cell phone, pager, notebook and Palm Pilot, but not for long.

The wireless industry has started to pay attention to the 49 million workers in the United States that spend time away from their desks. The Yankee Group (a market research group in Boston) has predicted that in five years the number of U.S. mobile data users, who will require an Internet fix while on the road, will reach about 20 million. Of this group, 1.5 million will need access to an "always on" mobile connection.

Reducing the Wireless Beasts to One

For now, while you can't carry one tool to the pool, a technology called "synchronization" at least allows you to input your data only once and have that data reproduce itself on your other digital devices.

"Synchronization" is the technology that allows all of these devices to communicate with one another using either a serial cable or infrared technology. You input your information once and "synchronize" by pointing or connecting the gadgets together.

Voila! The appointments your secretary slated on your desktop computer's calendar instantly register on your Palm Pilot so you can wake up the next morning and know where you had to be a half-hour earlier.

In the near future, you'll be able to skip the step where you acquaint the two gadgets. The technology that will allow you to skip that integral step is called "Bluetooth." (Having nothing to do with the way your kid's teeth look after chewing grape Bubble Yum.)

Bluetooth is a technology that also synchronizes various data devices. It's primarily designed to tie together multiple computers and peripherals within a range of about 10 meters.

Technically speaking, the key difference between straight synchronization and Bluetooth is that Bluetooth uses radio waves-the same frequency as the microwave in your kitchen-to transfer data without having to point the devices at one another. This technology is not widely available yet and, of course, won't really help you in the set up of your poolside office for the day.

The World Wide Wireless Wait

Why are we so far behind other countries when it comes to wireless? One reason is the strong resistance wireless companies have faced from local communities when attempting to build towers to locate their equipment.

We all know the "not-in-my-backyard" approach that our cities have taken with the 300 feet high towers that inevitably MUST be strategically located either next to YOUR swimming pool or on YOUR kid's playground at school. While the cellular and PCS industries have fought back against cities on this, the delays from the local level have cost providers like Sprint, BellSouth, and Nextel millions of dollars.

One somewhat effective less confrontational approach has been the development of "stealth" technology. This is where the wireless company camouflages these eyesores by making them look like things such as church steeples and palm trees.

Of course, nature never created a palm tree that could cook you better than your microwave oven. (Just a little techno-phobic humor there. Despite what you may have heard, even if your kid's schoolyard sports a wireless tower, the PTA will still have to buy a microwave oven to warm those lunches. They will never need coats though.)

The Telecom Giants Revisit Traditional Technology

Sprint and MCI WorldCom have recently become interested in a technology called "MMDS" (Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service). They hope to use it to reach local customers without negotiating with the Bells.

MMDS allows a voice, video or data provider to reach subscribers within a 35-mile radius. All subscribers need to do is place a receiving dish on the side or roof of their house or building.

The Federal Communications Commission first auctioned the MMDS spectrum in the 1960s for analog television. It was originally used as an alternative to cable TV, but it never really took off. Instead, MMDS has been revived to offer data and Internet services.

For instance, this year, Sprint decided to acquire several wireless cable and Internet providers. With these acquisitions and MMDS technology, Sprint estimates that it will be able to reach more than 24 million households across the country. It will use this wireless footprint to offer its Integrated On-Demand Network Service, a service providing voice, video, fax, Internet and data.

Similar to MMDS technology is "LMDS" (Local Multipoint Distribution Service). LMDS has a smaller footprint than MMDS and is therefore more expensive to deploy. This is because the smaller footprint means it needs more transmission devices than MMDS to cover the same area.

The Pioneers of New Wireless Technology

People start paying attention when they hear that companies like MCI WorldCom and Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures each have recently invested a measly $300 million into companies tapping into wireless technologies. One company that has recently made a major splash with the investment backing of Industry giants is Metricom, Inc. of Los Gatos, California.

Metricom is a laptop pioneer using a new wireless Internet technology. It's a company that offers a wireless Internet service called "Ricochet1." Ricochet1 is currently available only in San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Seattle, and in 12 airports, but is scheduled to roll out in an additional nine metropolitan areas by mid-2000. Metricom is attempting to be municipally-friendly by tapping into a technology that doesn't use the eyesore 300 feet towers.

Metricom places small transmitters on local light posts and utility poles about a half-mile apart. Signals can be sent from a laptop's wireless modem to one of these micro cell radio transmitters, which relay the signal to a wired access site, where the signal is connected to the Internet backbone.

Metricom offers data speeds at 128 kbps even when the user is driving at 70 miles an hour (of course, this begs for the creation of Mothers Against Metricom). Currently, Metricom charges a flat fee of $29.95 for its Ricochet1 mobile data service and the service provides a connection that's "always on."

GTE is also planning to offer a mobile wireless service, GTE mobile.com. The subscriber can access this technology by installing a wireless modem card or, for the technically challenged, via a "microbrowser."

A microbrowser is a simplified web browser in a handset, making it possible to access the Internet from a telephone. With or without a laptop, a customer can then connect to the Internet, surf a limited number of sites, and manage her e-mail. You should not overlook wireless Internet services when considering options to meet your company's and employees' telecommunications needs. Many information technology managers have turned to it as an alternative to, or a supplement to, the high cost and sometimes limited availability of a T-1 line, DSL or cable modem access.

Often, wireless options can be the solution to communications problems from a central to a distant office. In addition, wireless access can be used by your company to accommodate high-capacity bandwidth needs without having to tap into your T-1 connection resources which may be reserved for other uses.

If you stop to reflect on how fast technology has evolved in our lives, it's mind boggling. Just a few years ago, cell phones installed in cars (remember we used to call them "car phones") were common. We all remember the first generation of the portable phone, which we used to call "bricks." I remember playing with a state of the art adding machine that had gears not microchips (and I'm not that old).

If you consider that most people had never surfed the Net as recently as five years ago, you have to wonder where we'll be in five years. Let's just say that my crystal ball is broken. I say that because I know that any predictions that I make today for 2004 will look comical by then.

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