It's routine to carry a phone to place and receive calls wherever you are. But it was only thirty years ago that the first public telephone call was placed on a portable cellular phone. That call was made by Marty Cooper, then a general manager at Motorola, from the streets of New York City, to his rival at AT&T's Bell Labs. Fast forward 30 years and Cooper is now chairman and CEO of ArrayComm, which is trying to cause the same technology and communications market shift for wireless broadband. The notion is that broadband (like voice) will come to the person and not the place.
In the February issue, we wrote about the move toward "broadband anywhere". We followed up by organizing and moderating a session on this topic at the recent FastNet Futures Conference in San Jose.
Dave introduced the session by reminding the audience that although the press seems to view "Wi-Fi" and "broadband wireless" as synonymous, other technologies such as 3G, 4G, 802.16 and 802.20 have potential roles in this space. He framed the notion of "broadband anywhere" and described two approaches toward this goal: one operating from the "inside out" by expanding the range of local area network technologies such as Wi-Fi to reach outside the home and office to public places and streets, the other from the "outside in" using new metropolitan area network technologies to reach into buildings.
The first two speakers focused mainly on expanding Wi-Fi to extend beyond the home. Our first panelist was Mac Agan, Intel's Market Development Manager for Wireless. Mac painted the vision of a wireless future that supports "any device, any time, anywhere". Mac has been an evangelist for Intel's Centrino push: portable, long battery life computers with Wi-Fi are a key element in Intel's view. Intel has long believed in communications and computing convergence, and their current push is to add mobility. Intel is one of the founders of Cometa Networks which states its goal as becoming the leading wholesaler of secure, carrier grade, nationwide wireless Internet access. Although Mac's talk largely centered on the Wi-Fi portion of wireless, Intel is promoting wider-area technologies and is a sponsor of WiMAX and the 802.16 standard for MANs.
Tim Pozar, a founder of the Bay Area Research Wireless Network, provided a counterpoint to Intel's strongly commercial approach to wireless. Tim represents the utopian idea that "if everyone has the tools to exchange ideas then the world will be a better place." He's a founding member of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group and has written extensively about "community networks". BARWN is building a large-scale experimental network providing a wireless backbone across the San Francisco Bay Area, to serve community groups and public safety. Users can point directional antennas to the tops of nearby mountains and connect into the network.
The next two speakers focused on the wide-area aspects of broadband wireless. Marc Goldburg, CTO of ArrayComm, examined the economics and technologies of wireless broadband. He first discussed capital and operating expenses for Wi-Fi and 3G, asserting that Wi-Fi has attractive unit economics but unattractive network economics, while 3G has attractive network economics but difficulties in affordability for enough bandwidth and spectrum. He thus concluded that Wi-Fi and 3G will each play a role, but leave a gap to be filled by a wide-area broadband solution with better consumer economics. Several companies -- including ArrayComm and IPWireless -- aspire to fill that gap.
Our final speaker, Thierry Maupile, VP of Business Development at IPWireless, addressed how broadband wireless has moved from fixed (like the original Sprint high-speed-data offerings), to portable (like hotspots) to early generations of mobile data, which were very bandwidth limited. IPWireless believes it is well positioned to allow service providers to offer these plus real mobile broadband data. He drew a timeline for future evolution showing the development of wireless broadband to laptops, then PDAs, and finally embedded in connected consumer electronics.
The value proposition Thierry described is one we resonate with: full mobility, high bandwidth, indoor as well as outdoor coverage, low network latency, low deployment cost, high capacity and a business case that allows a low monthly subscription rate. For us, it remains to be demonstrated which technology, business plan and vendor will be able to deliver these.
Following Marty Cooper's first public portable cellular call in 1973, it took ten years to bring portable cell phones to market, and seven more years to reach a million US subscribers. Today's rollouts of broadband wireless by companies like ArrayComm in Australia and IPWireless in New Zealand show that we have traveled part of the way down the path, but there is considerable distance to go before mobile broadband subscribers outnumber those now fixed to a home or office.
We're convinced there's a real need for mobile broadband -- over time, it will develop to play a major role in the overall communications landscape.