Your Mobile Future
By Jason D. O'Grady, Wed Jul 26 00:00:00 GMT 2000

(July 25, 2000) Personal communications technology is in a state of exponential growth and the wireless revolution is what's driving the issue into the fore. The fusion of personal communication and wireless technology is the killer application of the future and no one can afford to ignore it. Much like the Internet and the fax machine before it, wireless communication is poised to invade nearly every aspect of our culture (if it hasn't already) in the next two years.

There are two factors driving the wireless revolution: price and ease of use. While it can be argued that wireless is still more expensive than wireline access, and that it's a little difficult to type on a 10-key keyboard, times are changing. When looking at the future of technology you have to consider that it evolves over time, adapting to the needs of the user. Before you know it, WAP phones and trusted mobile devices will be completely voice-driven and pricing will become transparent.

For the skeptical reader, consider that by 2003, wireless phones will outnumber PCs and televisions combined. In fact, they are projected to exceed 1 billion units that year. Also consider that wireless phones currently outsell PCs by about 2.5 to 1 annually, and the gap is widening. In Japan there are over 7 million NTT DoCoMo i-Mode subscribers and analysts anticipate that this number will surpass 20 million in 2001. At this rate, the number of i-Mode subscribers could surpass the number of AOL subscribers in the near-term.

USA: Late to the digital party?

The United States is quickly being left behind in wireless digital technology because the communications companies and the government have yet to agree on a universal standard. The bickering and infighting in the U.S. is the single largest barrier to global mobile commerce and there isn't a quick solution in sight.

In the United States there are several varieties of wireless services available (mobile phones, wireless modems and handhelds) and all are selling as fast as shopkeepers can take orders. The problem is that, unlike most of Europe and Asia where GSM is the prevailing standard, there are several different and incompatible protocols competing to become the standard for wireless communications in U.S.

Although most metropolitan U.S. cities have several digital mobile phone providers, most of them use different protocols for data transmission making handsets incompatible between networks. Philadelphia, PA, where I live, is one of the most competitive cities in the U.S. for digital coverage - with five providers offering service. Competition can be beneficial when comparing services based on price, but it becomes a problem when the equipment you purchase from one provider cannot be used on the network of another provider.

This means that if you purchase a mobile telephone and are unhappy with your service, it's not so easy to simply take your business elsewhere. Instead you are forced into buying new hardware if you want to switch to another provider - which can become costly, especially if you have a pay an "out fee" (typically around US$200) to get released from your contract. In many European countries, such as Finland, these annual service contracts are illegal.

Digital telephone standards

The largest mobile phone suppliers in the U.S. include Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola and Qualcomm and each use several competing digital telephone standards, including: CDMA, TDMA, and GSM 1900. CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) is a spread spectrum technology, which means that it spreads the information contained in a particular signal of interest over a much greater bandwidth than the original signal. TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) digital systems divide a single channel into a number of timeslots, with each user getting one out of every few slots. GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) is the European 900/1800 MHz digital cellular system that has expanded to many parts of the world and into the PCS band. GSM is known as PCS1900 in the U.S.

Mobile telephones in the United States range in price from very inexpensive or free (with an annual service contract) to about US$800 for the top-of-the-line Nokia 8800-series. A typical mobile phone costs between US$50 and US$150 with the purchase of an annual service contract. The digital phone handsets actually cost more than that but the network service providers are willing to subsidize a portion of the cost of the phone (effectively taking a loss) in exchange for getting your monthly business over the course of a year.

Digital data

In addition to the digital telephone standards, there are several additional U.S. standards for digital data transmission that make things even more confusing - including CDPD and Bell South's Mobitex network. The problem is that digital data standards proliferate across the U.S. just like the digital telephone standards.

For example, the wireless modem options in the U.S. are extremely limited; there are only four wireless modem solutions available. The Novatel Wireless Merlin II and the Sierra Wireless AirCard 300 operate on the Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) network. The Metricom Ricochet 64 Kbps external modem is currently available in three cities, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC. This fall Metricom is launching their Ricochet 128 service in 21 major U.S. markets at double the current speed. The last option is the relatively new Research in Motion (RIM) Wireless two-way pager, handheld and PC card all of which run on the Mobitex network.

Wireless Internet service for PDAs is available two flavors: The Palm VII features a built-in antenna and runs on the Bell South Mobitex network, the same network that the RIM card uses. The Novatel Minstrel III and V are wireless IP modem for the Palm III/V (and IBM WorkPad). The Palm VII is nice because of its all-in-one design but the form-factor is the same as the older-looking Palm III and it can only browse the Web via special "clipping applications," instead of a real browser. The Palm/Novatel setup is a little bulkier because of the external modem but it comes with a full browser and when used with a Palm Vx allows you to have access to 8 MB of memory.

WAP problems

To make matters worse there are problems with the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) that the United States is attempting to standardize on. On January 20, 2000, Geoworks Corporation, a wireless data communications services company, claimed that it holds essential Intellectual Property Rights for the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), and the Wireless Markup Language (WML) Specification. Geoworks claims it holds this patent for devices, including mobile phones, which are based on the WAP specification.

All of this adds up to an alphabet-soup of confusing acronyms and incompatible networks in the United States. Unfortunately the bureaucratic nature of the federal government combined with the lethargy and sheer greed of the major telephone companies and infrastructure providers leaves U.S. consumers with very expensive and incompatible wireless solutions when compared with Japan, Finland and Sweden. In addition, consumer choices are limited, and wireless technology is comparatively late in arriving to the U.S.

This is a dangerous (and somewhat surprising) position for the U.S. to be in when you consider the amount of innovation that it has contributed to the growth of the Internet over the past five years. If something doesn't change soon, the U.S. will be left behind in the wireless revolution.

Jason D. O'Grady is the head of the wireless practice at Odyssey Systems Corporation, and is the publisher of and