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Waiting for wireless everywhere

Readers are ready and eager for wireless wonders to come, but a few have some doubts about exactly how it would happen.

I read e-mail about last week’s column, Wireless Everywhere, while attending the European Technology Roundtable in Athens. Appropriately, much of the talk here is about wireless devices — Europe being a few years ahead of the U.S. in such things. One of the cooler applications I saw today is a navigation program for smart phones, designed for use while walking in cities, that automatically orients the on-screen map in the direction you’re facing.

In the e-mail, for the most part, readers were ready and eager for wireless wonders to come, but a few had some doubts about exactly how it would happen:

Steve, Valrico, FL: The great hope for available frequency spectrum is to get users off of their individual frequencies and onto systems where space is shared among uses. Of course this is not favored by those whose monopoly is protected by the spectrum they have, like TV and radio stations, but it's coming.Tablet Tomson Dallas, TX: I think the best first move is to get rid of the FCC. The future advancement of technology in the U.S. is at stake. Then reorganize and redistribute the bandwidth for current and future needs.

Well, the problem with that is that as soon as you got rid of the FCC you’d need to invent a new one.  Parsing out the airwaves is a tough job that never wins popularity contests. And then imagine for a moment that the most optimistic “smart radio” scenario were to come true: a world of transmitters that politely avoid stepping on each others’ wavelengths. You’d still need an enforcement agency to rein in those who misbehaved.

Anonymous, WI: All I can say is: "It must be nice." I live in a rural area in northern Wisconsin and my cell phone has no coverage for a mile to my house from the main road — and the main road has intermittent coverage. I still have only dial-up Internet; not because I choose it, but because DSL isn't available here.

I understand what you’re talking about: I recently spent a few days talking to the telephone cooperatives that provide service in rural South Dakota. The big carriers have pretty much ignored rural areas in terms of advanced services; I hope that the new wireless technologies will, over time, provide some better opportunities.

This whole issue of so-called “universal service” is an important piece of the upcoming telecommunications rewrite in Congress, and will be covered more here in months to come.

John Rogers: Verizon already has wireless broadband in many cities, pretty fast and with much coverage.  You need one of their datacards, and you could use it in a moving car.Andrew Nowicki, Minneapolis: I wonder why you have not mentioned UMTS, the most popular broadband, wireless standard. WiMAX is a vaporware similar to UMTS. The WiMAX specs represent, at best, theoretical maximum under ideal circumstances.

As mentioned in the story, telecom companies worldwide have pushed forward with a number of high speed wireless solutions; Verizon is probably farthest ahead in the U.S. and their BroadbandAccess service has received good reviews.

Here at the European Technology Roundtable, a number of people are talking about additional advanced 3G solutions for high speed broadband. Generally speaking, the European countries are several years ahead of the U.S. in this area, so WiMAX may not be as interesting an opportunity for them. On the other hand, the telecom world seems to be developing a number of incompatible systems. If the WiMAX proponents can truly create a single standard, that could be an advantage down the line.  Ultimately, in fact, WiMAX plus VoIP could finally create a truly universal mobile telephone standard worldwide.

Mike Rogers, Simi Valley, California: What if any health risks are involved in wireless?

This is a long-term controversy, going back at least to the late 70s when Paul Brodeur wrote a book called "The Zapping of America," raising health concerns about both microwave transmitters as well as radiation from high tension power lines. When cell phones came along (which also operate in the microwave range) they were added to that list.  Quite a bit of research has ensued, and the results remain controversial, although the mainstream scientific opinion is either that the evidence is inconclusive or negative.

Radio waves diminish in strength very quickly as the distance from the transmitter increases, so cell phones held against the ear remain the objects of greatest concern. The new wireless services for computers should be less worrisome. Generally speaking, the direction of new wireless technologies is toward lower transmitting power, to extend battery life in portable device. We’ve been living in a soup of low-level electromagnetic radiation for many decades; the addition of a few more wireless services probably won’t tip the balance one way or another.

Cristian, Ontario, Canada: I think the future is worldwide free communication through VoIP. And I'm sure that's not so far.

You have company.  Here at the conference in Athens, Niklas Zennstrom, who just sold his Skype VoIP company to eBay for about $4B, said this: “I think that in ten years, paying for a telephone call will seem like a very odd thing.”

Finally, you may recall that one of my examples of the wirelessly networked home was a telephone that would automatically mute the television when a call comes in. Reader Byron Raum of Beverly Hills, CA, gently corrects me: “Surely you meant to say that the telephone would pause the TiVo playing when the call comes in!”