What's the next big thing for the wireless industry?

By Mike Antonucci
Mercury News


If it's wireless, it's trendy.

There's grand talk throughout the tech world about a wave of new networks and wireless innovation that will provide better Internet access, deliver streaming video and foster an array of consumer-friendly features. Although it's too early to be sure which companies or networks will be most successful, the optimists dominate the skeptics.

Moreover, the federal government's recent auction of desirable radio spectrum - significant portions of which were won by AT&T and Verizon Wireless - is considered a major catalyst for improved mobile services.

As constantly proclaimed by industry experts at "The Mobile Future" conference in Santa Clara last week, the wireless industry is supposed to revolutionize our lives. So, just how will that happen?

• Consider the prospect of two-way video on handheld devices. For instance, parents may be able to use cell phones to talk face to face with a son or daughter at college.

• Imagine using your cell phone as a checkbook, said Pradeep Khosla, dean of the College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. You would send a secure payment authorization from your phone to someone else's, and the bank would confirm the transaction electronically.

• Think about a cell phone that would download your latest travel information as you entered an airport, said Ted Selker, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

It would confirm your boarding pass, alert you to a flight delay and give you a map that shows a Starbucks next to your gate.

• Or think about using the cameras in cell phones to search the Internet, suggested Bob Iannucci, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Nokia. People could snap a picture of the Eiffel Tower and then use the photo as a search prompt to get information. When the photo is recognized, you could receive tips from online guidebooks. Or think in terms of shopping: You could take a photo of shoes in a store window and download product details from the retailer's Web site.

Is there a realistic chance that these ideas, gathered by the Mercury News at the conference and in other interviews, could be deployed over the next several years?

"As far as identifying what the next wave of applications is going to be, no one really knows," said Frank Dickson, chief research officer for MultiMedia Intelligence, a business consulting firm in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Nevertheless, future wireless networks are expected to offer such robust bandwidth - highlighted by the high-speed transmission of rich multimedia content - that big innovations seem inevitable. Plus, the spectrum auctioned
by the government (available because TV stations will relinquish it next year in a conversion from analog to all-digital signals) is considered highly effective at reliably spanning long distances with high-speed data.

"I don't think anybody knows for sure what's going to be on the network we have three years from now, but we do know it's going to be video-intensive," said AT&T spokesman John Britton.

Verizon declined to comment for this report.

The absence during the spectrum auction of major new rivals for AT&T and Verizon, which say they're planning sharply upgraded networks, has raised concerns about whether consumers will get the price and service benefits of healthy competition. But even if competition is weak, the convenience and efficiency of faster and more dependable online connections should prove compelling.

Don't expect to be able to download a 3-gigabyte movie to your laptop while heading by taxi to your hotel, said Professor Andrew Odlyzko, director of the Digital Technology Center at the University of Minnesota. But it will become a routine task during that time, he said, to download a 20-megabyte PowerPoint attachment in your e-mail.

Ultimately, improved networks and technology "will blur the lines between phones and computers," said Professor Jeffrey Andrews, director of the Wireless Networking and Communications Group at the University of Texas-Austin.

"Location-based services" could thrive on mobile networks with better bandwidth, assuming there's a feasible business model, said Erin Defosse, chairman of the Austin Wireless Alliance.

A classic example of a location-based service would be to use your cell phone to find the nearest branch of your bank. But Defosse envisions possibilities such as using your phone for a 3-D preview of a nearby museum. You'd be able to decide if the exhibits are worth the price of admission, and even determine that the building had a restaurant and an ATM - one of which might be sponsoring the preview.

None of the futuristic scenarios lack for challenges.

Some experts are doubtful that phones will have enough battery and processing power to support the most advanced applications or screen displays. Moreover, the needs and spending habits of consumers are moving targets, so figuring out how to make money with new services can be more formidable than the technological hurdles.

But Selker, an IBM researcher before joining the MIT Media Lab, knows his phone-as-boarding-pass project is doable. He tested the technology using reconfigured personal digital assistants in 1997 in New Zealand.

Khosla is working on the secure transfer of currency through personal devices with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon's CyLab.

And Iannucci is able to look ahead to the potential of object recognition with cell phone cameras based on work under way at Nokia.

"There's going to be better bandwidth as well as a proliferation of devices, and streaming video for sports and entertainment is a logical next step," said Dickson of MultiMedia Intelligence. "That much is safe to say."

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