How fast was the wireless network on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise? Its mission was to, “boldly go where no one had gone before.” And to do that, Gene Roddenberry imagined a space vehicle the size of a small city with a very powerful computer network and a serious wireless broadband cloud. It may have been science fiction in the 60s, but this week, it got one step closer to reality.
Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Intel, Google, Bright House Networks, Clearwire, Sprint Nextel and some other telecommunications companies have formed a consortium to build the first, next generation wireless network using a technology called WiMax. When it is built, consumers will be able to enjoy some very advanced wireless features — so advanced, in fact, the network and the devices that use it will actually change our behaviors on a large scale. High-speed, wireless broadband clouds will change telecommunications, entertainment, retail, medical, financial services, government and criminal activity. These are just a few of the benefits of cloud living — but don’t get too excited. It’s two to four years away.
WiMax (aka 802.16) has been around for a while. It has the potential to carry video, voice and data just like WiFi, only it’s much faster. How fast? It depends on a number of variables. On the low end, you can expect speeds that are similar to a ADSL connection (1.5 Mbps down, 768 Kbps up) like you get from your phone company over telephone lines — on the high end, maybe 6 Mbps symmetrical like you might purchase from your cable provider. The true benefit of this technology is that it is “per person,” not “per household.” That’s the possible upside. The possible downside is the same as it is today. You can only carry a 1.5 watt transceiver in your pocket (by law) and that means that the efficacy of the network’s upstream capacity will be limited by the number of towers that can be erected in a given area — just like cell phone towers.
That being said, a great deal of value can be found on the receiving-side or downlink side of any network. If you’re watching a movie or looking at a live image being sent by a friend, it’s all about downlink speed.
Is WiMax really a great way to create a broadband cloud? Verizon and AT&T don’t thinks so. They, along with T-Mobile, are working with a competing (and incompatible) technology called LTE (Long Term Evolution). Some say it will not be as fast as a WiMax network, but engineering arguments aside the important issue is that the two systems are incompatible. In other words, wireless device manufacturers will have to choose one system or the other for each device they wish to market.
This is a very unfortunate reality for our communications future. In fact, it is antithetical to the spirit of the “open source” provision that Verizon agreed to adhere to. Yes, anyone can make a device that will work with the new Verizon network — but leave an area covered by that network and your device will not work. Sounds like the early days of cell phone service, right? Only one caveat: back in the day, when you left one provider’s service area, your devices still worked, you just got charged extra for “roaming.” This will not be the case here. If you have a Verizon LTE device and you leave the 4G network area, your device will not function.
The answer is simple and obvious: create a nationwide network. Good thought. Who will write the check? When your cell phone doesn’t work in a rural area or in a pocket of low-density population, you just wait until you get into a covered area. It’s inconvenient, but not fatal. But, that’s not how we’re going to use advanced wireless devices. Think of how your life would change if you could carry your laptop in the palm of your hand, it had an interface like an iPhone, the capabilities of a MacBook Pro and the speed of a fast cable modem. You would very quickly come to rely on the benefits of such a device. Instant search, maps, entertainment, commerce, coupons, business and financial transactions, supermarket checkout, the list goes on forever.
Now, leave the coverage area. Oops. This will not be like your cell phone reception going dark in a specific area for a while. If you think about ubiquitous wireless high-speed Internet access, you also need to think about storing your data in the cloud. Imagine how your life would change with unlimited storage accessible via your device, as opposed to stored on it. Once you change your behaviors, you will not be able to transact your digital life outside the cloud. Humm …. Maybe we won’t have digital lives?
Some people just shrug this off and say, Betamax v. VHS, Blu-ray v. HD DVD — but there may not be a clear winner here for years. And even if there is, will they be economically incentivized to create a truly nationwide, ubiquitous network? What will consumers do in the meantime? The good news is that the average lifespan of a wireless device is only a few years. Everyone who has a use for the additional benefits of mobile high-speed will have a chance to own several generations of devices before this all gets worked out.
When the history of 21st Century interpersonal communication is written, it will start with the story of this consortium trying to do what the best of us aspire to — “to boldly going where no one has gone before.”