These are grim times for mobile phone operators. After incurring billions of dollars of debt to license spectrum for third generation (3G) wireless networks - to provide faster, internet-oriented capabilities - they now face significant additional costs to build network infrastructure, and collapsing share prices.
Is our much-hyped wireless future as dead as a dotcom dodo? Actually, no. This is a temporary hiccup, and while it may not be apparent, a number of key building blocks are being put in place that will make wireless the next major platform in the communications revolution.
Upgrading public networks
Certainly the introduction of broadband (faster, data friendly) networks is an essential component of this revolution. But while media attention has focused on 3G, an intermediate technology is already being rolled out. Known as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), this will deliver bandwidth (effectively, the speed with which data can be transmitted) four times greater than today's wireless networks.
It will also bring ?always on? capability, allowing users to remain permanently logged on to their email and the web, paying for the amount of data sent and received, not for time online.
Deutsche Telekom has already launched GPRS in Germany, and it should be available in the UK later this year.
When 3G does eventually arrive, wireless networks should become 200 times faster than today, bringing full multimedia communications. Satellite-based systems will also become an increasingly attractive wireless channel.
New private networks
But the public network is only one part of this revolution. Another important component is a collection of short-distance wireless technologies, most notably Bluetooth, for creating private wireless networks.
Bluetooth is an open standard for two-way, short-wave radio communications. In contrast to infra-red, which is restricted to distances of three feet and requires both devices to be pointed at each other (… la TV remote), Bluetooth can transmit voice and data wirelessly to any device within a range of 33 feet - at twenty times the speed of a dialup modem, and through walls. Your PC, mobile phone, PDA, laptop computer etc. will be able to exchange data between themselves wirelessly, spontaneously networking together in your 'Personal Area Network'.
Using Bluetooth you can also, say, send files to a local printer wirelessly, or use a nearby phone with a cordless headset.
The first Bluetooth-enabled devices will become available later this year.
Another up-and-coming short-distance wireless technology, with the nerdish name of IEEE 802.11, allows transmission rates ten times faster than Bluetooth, and up to distances of 300 feet. With its greater capabilities, IEEE 802.11 is likely to drive corporate local area networks, or intranets. It could also be used to create home-based networks.
Airports, libraries, restaurants etc. may also install local wireless networks, allowing customers to connect to the internet, their corporate intranets and home PCs, remotely.
New mobile devices
To better exploit this ubiquitous network, new mobile devices are becoming available, including wirelessly-enabled Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and new 'smartphones' that combine phone and PDA-like functionality, plus web, email and messaging services.
Bluetooth will also be added, and over time mobile devices will acquire a multitude of additional functions. They will, for instance, become e-wallets, to which digital cash can be beamed and withdrawn. Or electronic keys, able to unlock doors to homes, offices and hotel rooms http://wireless.newsfactor.com/perl/story/?id=7547.
They will also communicate wirelessly with products in shops, which will beam pricing and product details to them, and automatically deduct payment from the device's e-wallet as they are wheeled past the checkout http://www.wirelessnewsfactor.com/perl/story/?id=6642.
We know where you are!
Wireless devices will also always know exactly where they are located geographically, allowing, for instance, the emergency services to locate distressed 999 callers. This capability will also fuel new location-based commercial services, including location-specific mobile commerce and information services, identifying, for example, the nearest bank machine http://www.princetoninfo.com/200011/01129c01.html.
Ironically, as the main facilitator of people's mobility, the old-economy automobile could become an important hub for these new services. General Motors has already developed a voice-activated cellular service that, among other things, 'speaks' web-based information to drivers and includes a share dealing service. It will also alert the emergency services if the airbag deploys http://www.onstar.com.
No doubt about it
The promise held out by wireless technologies is of a future in which any wireless device, whatever size, wherever located, can instantaneously connect to any other device on the planet - without today's constraint of requiring cables running between them.
True, the huge debts now burdening telecoms companies will slow down the wireless revolution. There will be other problems too. But, as Geoff Wissman, principal consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers' global retail group, concluded in a recent report: "Once the mobile ball starts picking up speed, nothing will stop it. Companies need to start planning today so that they can quickly react to the coming mobile revolution."
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