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The real wireless revolution is just beginning

Three technologies — WiMAX, mesh networks and smart radios — are about to converge to create a new generation of seamless networks.

Amidst the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, a bit of the future made an auspicious debut. The FCC allowed an isolated temporary shelter in rural Louisiana to use the still-experimental technology WiMAX (basically, Wi-Fi’s big brother) as a powerful, high-speed wireless link to the nearest functioning Internet connection point, fifteen miles away. WiMAX worked flawlessly —  and now discussions are underway to make wireless access a big part of New Orleans’ reconstructed communications infrastructure.

Wireless is everywhere these days — from federal disaster areas to less-troubled climes like Philadelphia and San Francisco, both of which are planning low-cost or free city-wide wireless networks. And in fact, we‘re actually just at the beginning of the true wireless revolution as three technologies — WiMAX, mesh networks and smart radios — converge to create a new generation of seamless networks that extend from your pocket and living room to your automobile and beyond.

The first big game-changer will be WiMAX, which can reach thirty miles or more, blanketing an entire region with an Internet connection as fast as or faster than currently available over telephone or cable lines.

WiMAX has competition, of course. Companies like Verizon, Sprint and Cingular are already rolling out high-speed Internet networks across the country and other telephone companies providers won’t be far behind. The telephone folks have a head start — they’ve been planning 3G (third-generation) technology for years now. But they also have a big disadvantage: in the U.S., the carriers are adopting incompatible systems — Verizon broadband, for example, can’t use the same equipment as Sprint broadband. WiMAX, on the other hand, is like Wi-Fi: a single standard supported by many brands of hardware. 

The first version of WiMAX will be commercially released late this year or early next, and already companies like Intel are preparing big promotional efforts. (That’s notably in contrast to Wi-Fi, which was launched rather quietly by Apple and took a few years to gain traction.) The first flavor of WiMAX will only work for stationary reception, so in countries like the U.S., with plenty of cable and telephone lines, the initial version may not have immediate impact. It will, however, be of enormous importance in bringing broadband to the developing world as well as rural areas in the U.S.

Shortly thereafter, however, a second standard will appear: mobile WiMAX, usable while walking or driving. And that’s when it could get interesting in the U.S. For starters, you’d be able to use free VoIP telephony instead of a traditional cell phone connection anywhere you can pick up a WiMAX signal. A moving automobile could have a constant connection to the Internet, for anything from continually updated navigation information to streaming Internet radio to car-to-car communications (“Red Pontiac, is this the way to the stadium?”)  Just about anything could have a connection to the Internet, from soda vending machines to billboards to your puppy’s collar.

Along with WiMAX, the next twist in the wireless landscape is the mesh network. To understand how this works, start with the familiar home Wi-Fi network: you usually have one wireless router (transmitter), which broadcasts to all the computers in the house, each with its own Wi-Fi receiver. The router is a hub and each computer is a wireless spoke. In a mesh network, each computer is not only a receiver but a transmitter as well, so that information can travel longer distances, in a series of short hops, and can have multiple paths to choose from should one transmitter temporarily break. 

Mesh networks can be inexpensive, quickly built or expanded, and highly reliable. Such a network might be used in a neighborhood to create a large wireless network composed of many individual homes, connected to each other by short-range Wi-Fi and sharing a single Internet connection to the outside world.

Or, on a smaller scale, a low-power mesh network could link all of the electronics and appliances in your home. The telephone would mute the sound system when a call came in; your power meter would tell the dishwasher to run when electric rates were lowest. Each additional device you brought in — a new microwave, a clock radio — would automatically seek out and join the network as well.

If you’re visualizing a world with fewer wires but an atmosphere stuffed to the gills with radio waves, you’re exactly right. The FCC, for example, had to grant a special waiver for WiMAX during the Katrina relief because there wasn’t any radio spectrum to spare. We’re running out of usable radio space since every service — TV, radio, police scanners, Citizens Band, air traffic control, garage door openers and so on — needs its own electromagnetic elbow room to keep from interfering with something else. Valuable space will be freed up in a few years when the U.S. switches to all-digital television — but there are already lots of ideas for how to fill those airwaves with more wireless products.

Thus enter the third new technology for wireless: “smart” radio transmitters that “listen” to the surrounding airwaves and automatically choose temporarily-vacant frequencies. This isn’t simple — the receiver at the other end also needs to be smart enough to follow along with the transmitter — but smart radio research and development is well underway. The most extreme advocates argue that once the technology is fully developed, the FCC can stop trying to regulate the airwaves and simply let smart radios figure out how to share it themselves. That’s about as likely as repealing the income tax, but smart radios should be able to use their legally allotted spectrum far more efficiently.

Ironically, one of the first applications of smart radios may, once again, be in disaster areas. As both the 9-11 rescue efforts and Katrina made clear, when multiple emergency crews converge on the same scene, their efforts can be hampered and lives put at risk by incompatible radio gear. Giving first responders smart radio gear that can automatically agree on what frequencies to use (and which may also take advantage of the WiMAX standard) is a perfect use of the technology.

Where will it end? Skeptics will point out that wireless will never deliver the same maximum bandwidth as wires, cables or fiber-optics. And many of the coolest wireless concepts also depend on battery power — traditionally the weak link in mobile technology. But the wireless juggernaut is leaving the station, and once a technology has been shown to work, it’s quite remarkable what additional mileage smart engineers can coax out of it. (Integrated circuit designers, for example, are regularly warned that they’re coming to the theoretical limits of what they can do — yet circuits keep getting smaller.) Some prognosticators like to say that someday every object on earth will have an Internet address: an exaggeration, of course, but not far off the mark of what ubiquitous wireless would make possible. The best advice: stay tuned.