FRAMINGHAM (10/10/2003) - The development of wireless data services over the next five years will seem revolutionary compared with the snail's pace that marked the technology's early history.
Cellular service remained primarily a voice-only medium until 1992, when cellular carriers developed a TCP/IP system with a maximum data rate of 19.2Kbit/sec. Rates remained at that level until last year, when carriers introduced 2.5G (two-and-a-half-generation) technology that approximated dial-up modem speeds of 56Kbit/sec.
Early last year, companies that operate on the Code Division Multiple Access protocol upgraded their networks to offer users average throughput of 50K to 70Kbit/sec. At the same time, cellular companies that operate on the Global System for Mobile Communications standard beefed up their systems to provide average data rates of 20K to 40Kbit/sec.
Thanks to massive investments to get these modest improvements -- AT&T Wireless Services Inc. alone will spend US$14 billion on cellular from 2000 through the end of this year -- wireless networks are now poised to move toward 2Mbit/sec.
Shiv Bakhshi, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., predicts that by 2006 or 2007, all mobile carriers in the U.S. will offer "near ubiquitous" service at peak data rates of 2Mbit/sec.
Margaret Marino, vice president of technology development at AT&T Wireless, says AT&T plans to offer 384Kbit/sec. speeds throughout its network by the end of this year and 2Mbit/sec. maximum speeds in four markets by the end of next year.
Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS Group plan to offer data rates that peak at 2.4Mbit/sec., with average throughput between 400Kbit/sec. and 1Mbit/sec.
Tero Ojanpera, head of research at Nokia Corp. in Espoo, Finland, says wide bandwidth could in five years realize a dream the industry has chased since the 1939 New York World's Fair: a video phone the same size as today's mobile phones.
Len Barlik, vice president of technology research at Sprint Corp., says broadband mobile networks and advanced handsets would provide users with all the processing power and capabilities of a desktop terminal connected to an office LAN. That would allow enterprise users to move beyond e-mail and download fat attachments such as PowerPoint slides or Adobe Acrobat files directly to their handsets.
The carriers also say they'll incorporate Wi-Fi wireless LAN technology into their networks and access devices in order to accommodate interfaces with both enterprise Wi-Fi networks and public-access Wi-Fi hot spots.
Originally envisioned as a wireless extension of the office LAN, Wi-Fi caught the attention of wireless carriers in 2000, when companies such as Wayport Inc. in Austin started to install short-range (100-ft.) but high-bandwidth Wi-Fi hot spots in airports and hotels.
Datamonitor PLC, a research firm in London, predicts that the number of Wi-Fi hot spots will explode from 31,000 at the end of this year to 135,000 by the end of 2006. Wi-Fi hot spots are expected to continue to penetrate the lodging and dining markets and extend into other venues, such as service in trains, planes, ferries and gas stations.
The Wi-Fi Connection
Ron Adkins, general manager of IBM's pervasive and wireless computing division, foresees the development of a Wi-Fi-enabled car that will use both Wi-Fi and cellular technologies to monitor onboard systems and to download data and music files from a home network. Wi-Fi under the hood will save on expensive copper wiring.
Chris Kozup, an analyst at Meta Group Inc., says that over the long haul, cellular carriers will dominate over Wi-Fi-only network operators as the carriers integrate Wi-Fi into their networks. This means a company could tap one carrier for all its wireless services, with charges for hot-spot and mobile connections all on one bill.
Kozup predicts that multimode phones will eventually serve as the entry point into enterprise voice networks through a voice-over-IP connection on corporate wireless LANs.
Mark Whitton, vice president for business and technology strategy at Nortel Networks Ltd., says the convergence of Wi-Fi and mobile networks requires the development of smart phones and handheld computers that can "sense" networks and their characteristics and then make a network choice based on user preferences such as bandwidth, cost and the availability of Wi-Fi or mobile service.
"The average Joe does not know or care what kind of wireless network he is using," Whitton says. The user needs software and devices -- which Nortel is working on -- that can make intelligent choices for the user, he says.