Plans to provide reliable high-speed wireless Internet access everywhere in the United States are in the works by both government and industry. Instead of desktop computers, access will be achieved with personal-digital-assistant-sized full-strength computers, but it's going to take years for this to come to fruition.

Be aware, too, that access may not be through the localized arrangements that now exist, and it's unlikely that access for businesses will be “free.”

Let's look at the possible technology scenarios for mobile computing and at devices meant to use it.

Ancient metal might enable 21st century technology

Broadband over power lines (BPL) is the term given to the latest attempt to use copper power lines to carry high-speed communications services, including Internet. Early efforts were aimed at using 110/220V AC circuits only for intra-building data communications, but none of those early efforts worked well. Some caught fire, “noise” contaminated signals, and transmission speeds were considered slow even back in the days when speeds were measured in kilobits/second.

Today, the goal is to make entire electrical grids (the distribution system for a community) into high-speed (megabits/second) data communication networks, with each network tied into the Net. Businesses and consumers will plug a PC's modem cable into a low-cost adapter, which would be plugged into any AC power outlet.

Challenges to low-cost, clean, high-speed data transmission over power lines are still substantial, but the benefits would be even more considerable. Businesses and consumers wouldn't need to install telephone lines in new/rehabbed offices, factories, homes, etc.; there would be no need to pay for cable TV lines when ordering service; no need to run new computer network wiring when adding new devices; no need to install wireless “routers” to connect computers to the Net; and no concerns about anyone outside a building illegally using the signal like sometimes currently happens in the Wi-Fi wireless world.

Any kind of data that can be digitized would be transmitted over power lines. (Many phone calls are already being conducted over the Net using Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP). Power lines would simply replace the current medium of transmission). The use of power lines for digital transmission would also save cable and phone companies billions because they would be able to economically solve the “last mile” problem, which refers to the great expense for carriers to install fiber-optic cable between each switching station and each customer's premises. Instead, they would rent the use of power lines external to premises.

Electrical wholesalers could lose sales as a result of BPL, because much less special wire and cable would be needed for voice, data, video and security systems. Sales of wireless devices, a growing market for electrical wholesalers, could also decrease.

By the end of 2006, most of the Dallas area should be involved in the United State's largest BPL experiment. Even if it works well, the technology is proprietary, and not necessarily compatible with BPL technology used elsewhere — just as wireless computing today involves different protocols.

Universal wireless connectivity: Wi-Fi vs. Wi-Max

The Wi-Fi wireless Internet access sites that exist now are growing in number and being upgraded to handle much more throughput, but an alternate method of Internet access, Wi-Max, is evolving. Wi-Max definitely will not be free; it might even stifle the growth of free access.

Wi-Fi wireless Internet access available today is only possible when situated near a “hot spot” — a wireless router. Hot spots tend to be in coffee shops (think Starbucks), casual restaurants, bookstores, copy shops, airport waiting areas and hotel lobbies.

Wi-Fi usually has a range of about 300 feet, although some routers provide a range of up to 1,000 feet. Wi-Fi uses an unlicensed portion of the broadcast spectrum and sometimes results in interference between Wi-Fi devices and other wireless devices using those frequencies (like portable telephones).

There are no official Wi-Fi standards. The throughput rate of Wi-Fi is less than most cable-modem circuits and digital subscriber lines (DSLs). Although the throughput is OK for most uses, it can be limiting when transmitting large files.

Hundreds of local governments are planning to build and operate hot spots that use a new protocol called Wi-Max, which operates over a 30-mile range at speeds six to seven times faster than Wi-Fi. The longer range means that only a few routers would be needed to handle an entire city, making Wi-Max relatively affordable.

Wi-Max will make wireless real-time video an in-focus, jitter-free reality, and eliminate errors in data transmission and interference with other devices. Consumers will be allowed to access the Net free of charge, in exchange for tolerating advertising like pop-ups. Look for Wi-Max hot spots and computing devices in 2007.

Existing cell phone carriers are against the Wi-Max movement because they have a money-making alternate. Nonetheless, the carriers are looking to turn the lemon of competition into lemonade by installing and operating city-wide networks of Wi-Max hot spots. The carriers would be paid to install and operate the networks, and the municipalities are considering charging businesses that use the networks to help pay for the investment and operation, along with advertisers.

Like much of the Internet, Wi-Fi evolved within a free-use culture; businesses use Wi-Fi access as a “draw.” The absence of user fees so far, coupled with the lack of standards and use of unlicensed frequencies explain why no major carrier has established its own Wi-Fi spots.

The involvement of major carriers will help advance Wi-Fi and Wi-Max more quickly than the free-use culture has. It will also lead to the establishment of standards, which will eventually mean that all networks of hot spots will be interconnected.

Cell networks to compete with Wi-Max

Nonetheless, cell carriers would like to ramp up a wireless money-making alternate to Wi-Max. Carriers are planning to upgrade their entire networks to reliably and securely work at real broadband speeds, and seamlessly “hand off” a data signal from one cell tower to another. Some carriers have already started to do so, but a complete upgrade is a big task in terms of technology, time and investment, so universal access to broadband cell networks is a few years away. When the first generation arrives, don't be surprised to encounter the computer equivalent of, “Can you hear me now?” as the carriers work out the bugs.

Although this will cost more than wireless phone calls, businesses will benefit from broadband cell networks because employees who work outside an office will be able to use lap tops and other devices to instantly access data, do calculations and print documents that now require a visit to the office. For example, an electrical wholesaler salesperson on a job site in some outlying suburb could use a wireless device to scroll through inventory-availability data for several items and immediately transmit an order for the customer.

Up in the air — literally

Voice/data communications carriers are working with U.S. airlines to provide broadband cell networks on domestic flights. Although targeted at business travelers, this arrangement would also allow phone calls and streaming video — just as land-line broadband does. Of course, it would cost, but at $10 to $20 per hour (author's guesstimate), it would be a cheap way to boost productivity. Look for this in about a year.

Wireless PDA-sized PCs

Although some PDAs can currently be used to wirelessly access the Internet, the traditional laptop is the device most frequently used today. Unfortunately, it cannot be stored in a coat pocket.

Truly mobile computing requires truly portable devices. No, not cell phones with TV-like screens and keyboards that can only be used with pinkies, but true wireless PCs with keyboards that can be used with all ten fingers. One current style looks like a sizeable clamshell cell phone. Open it up, and the bottom half of the clamshell contains half the keyboard, with the other half on the body of the device.

Another style looks like a small LCD screen (4.9-inches long by 3.4-inches wide), until the screen is slid open like a double patio door to reveal a 1-inch-thick base containing a keyboard, stick and mouse buttons, digital pen and thumbwheel. It contains a 1GHz processor, a 20GB hard drive, 256MB of RAM, and FireWire and USB ports; all weighing only 14 ounces. Both styles come equipped with Microsoft Office and are true business-oriented PCs.

For the nostalgic, there is a wrist-watch device reminiscent of Dick Tracy's two-way-radio, but so far it can only be used to receive downloaded information sent at prearranged times. Think of its successor as true mobile computing.




Richard “Dick” C. Friedman is a recognized authority on information technology (IT) for wholesalers, distributors and manufacturers. His firm specializes in objectively helping these businesses acquire and more profitably use IT, and has helped several electrical wholesalers. For more information or to send e-mail, visit www.GenBusCon.com.

Philly is Cutting its Computer Cords to become the Nation's Largest Wi-Fi Hot Spot

The City of Brotherly Love is cutting the cord when it comes to Internet access. Early in March, Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street announced agreements with EarthLink and Wireless Philadelphia to bring wireless Internet service to the city. When fully implemented, the initiative will turn Philadelphia into the nation's largest Wi-Fi hot spot and help to improve education, bridge the digital divide, enhance neighborhood development and reduce the costs of government.

“Just as roads and transportation were keys to our past, wireless technology and digital infrastructure are keys to our future,” said Mayor Street.

Under the agreements, EarthLink will build, manage and maintain a wireless network over the city's 135 square miles at no cost to taxpayers. EarthLink will pay the city to install its transmittal devices on approximately 4,000 of Philadelphia's street lamp poles. In addition, EarthLink will provide city residents and visitors with free hot spots in 22 locations around Philadelphia, and provide the city with 3,000 free or discounted Wi-Fi accounts and 700 discounted T-1 accounts to be used at the city's option.

Wireless Philadelphia, a nonprofit entity incorporated by Mayor Street in March 2005, will use the revenues it receives from EarthLink (5 percent of access revenue) and other monies raised to invest in educational and social programs to help Philadelphia citizens. Of the amount EarthLink pays to the city, $2 million will be used for programs to help bridge the digital divide. Initial plans include purchasing 10,000 discounted computers for children and low-income residents to use and for associated training programs. Wireless Philadelphia will also be responsible for building awareness of the program among audiences across the city.

The costs of the wireless service will be geared to users' different needs. Economically disadvantaged users will be charged $9.95 a month, while other Internet service providers (ISPs) will be charged a wholesale rate that allows them to sell access for $20 a month or less to retail customers.

D.C. Suburb is Nation's First Community to Deploy Wireless Internet through BPL

Last year, the 37,000-person Washington, D.C., suburb of Manassas, Va., became the United States' first major deployment in broadband-over-power line (BPL) technology, which uses the electricity grid in a city and the wiring in individual homes to provide direct “plug in” broadband Internet access through electricity sockets, rather than over phone or cable TV lines.

By bundling radio-frequency (RF) energy on the same line with the electric current that is already carried, data can be transmitted without the need for a separate line. Since the electric current, which is used to provide power to the end users, and RF energy signals carrying the data operate at different frequencies (with electric current traveling at lower frequencies and data at higher levels), the two don't interfere with each other.

Communication Technologies Inc. (COMTek), Chantilly, Va., owns and operates the BPL network in Manassas and also serves as the Internet service provider (ISP), providing e-mail and Web hosting services for customers. COMTek signs up and services the needs of Manassas customers. The city of Manassas provides utility staff to install BPL couplers and repeaters and to maintain the fiber connections that link COMTek servers and routers to the power lines. The city receives a portion of subscriber revenues to offset the manpower and equipment resources that they contribute to the BPL services.