Life After Wires
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Sep 17 12:45:00 GMT 2003

Most households on the island of Rarotonga (where I've been living with my family for the last couple of months) have a couple of goats and pigs. Nobody here uses fences to keep their animals from wandering off the property. Instead, they tie ropes from the animals' legs to coconut trees...

Looking at the stuff on the kitchen table I've been using as my desktop, I feel a little like one of those farm animals - mainly because the table is so messy it looks like a pig sty, but also because I'm tethered to it with six different cables: a power cord for my laptop, a cable for the modem, a cable for the phone, a firewire for my iPod, headphones for my iPod, and a USB cable for my Palm handheld. A few minutes ago, I tripped over the power cord and it came out of my computer.

Power and data cords are the leashes that prevent people from going mobile. Will we ever live in a world without wires? WiFi and Bluetooth have given me hope. Imagine a desktop without the dusty tangle of black spaghetti dangling from the back. Imagine hooking up a new personal video recorder to your home entertainment network simply by pressing the power on switch, and letting it wirelessly configure itself as a node on the network.

How far away are we from a truly wireless world? Will we ever be completely free of the plastic-clad cables that shackle us to our workstations?

In a word, no. But that doesn't mean things won't get a lot better in the next few years. New wireless standards that address a wide range of data transmission requirements are almost ready for commercialization.

Speed to Go

On the high-speed side, there's 802.16e, also known as the Mobile WirelessMAN (metropolitan area network) standard, which will offer mobile broadband wireless access. One way to think of 802.16e is WiFi with a much bigger coverage range, and which allows people to use it while traveling in cars or trains. While WiFi maxes out at 54 megabits/second and works up to 300 feet from a base station, WirelessMAN (which, like WiFi, can use unlicensed radio spectrum) is shooting for a range of several miles, and a data transfer rate of 100 megabits/second.

Similarly, there's the 802.20 standard, which is also geared towards mobile users. It tops out at 16 megabits/sec, and has a range of nine miles. Unlike 802.16e, it'll use licensed spectrum, which is a big sticking point. The reason WiFi is such a big success is because anyone can set up a hotspot, not just big carriers with a spectrum license. So far, 802.16e looks like the best bet for ubiquitous broadband.

Slow Mo(bility)

On the low data transfer side, Bluetooth looks like it is finally taking off, now that chipsets costs are going down. In addition, there's 802.15.4, with the snappy name of ZigBee. Designed for "wireless personal area network" (WPAN) apps, ZigBee aims to replace a bunch of cables and wires in your house. Proposed uses include wireless home security, remote control of heating, air conditioning, lighting, and window coverings, computer peripherals, and industrial automation.

Then there's WirelessUSB, a cable-replacement technology that could sell for as low as $1 per chipset. The appeal of WirelessUSB is that, unlike Bluetooth or ZigBee, it uses the USB drivers already installed on computers, so it needs no setup. The downside is Wireless USB transfers data at 62.5 Kbps (compared to ZigBee's 250Kbps and Bluetooth's 1000Kbps), which limits the types of applications it can handle. But for simple things, like mice, keyboards, and game controllers, WirelessUSB has significant desktop-clutter clearing capability.

The one type of cable you won't be able to get rid of is the good old power cord. It looks like we'll be stuck with AC wall outlets for a long time. There *has* been research into wireless power transmission, but it has to do with beaming power to earth from space using microwaves. It wouldn't work in a house, at least not without cooking its occupants.

Power Tools

One of the most irksome symptoms of the information age - the ubiquitous black power adaptors (aka "wall warts") that litter wall sockets and invite people to stumble over their cables - could go away, thanks to a well-known technology called inductive charging. A company called SplashPower Ltd. is touting a nifty inductive charging system called the SplashPad. Consisting of a 6mm thick panel that can be mounted into cars, airplane tables, or desktops, the SplashPad delivers electricity to phones, laptops, PDAs, MP3 players, etc, when they are placed on the pad. Of course, the mobile devices must have a receiver module built into them, so that the SplashPad can charge them. Currently SplashPower is working with a variety of manufacturers to incorporate the receiving modules into their products.

I'm rooting for SplashPower. If its technology takes off, I look forward to taking all my wall warts outside, putting them on the sidewalk and showing them the business end of a sledgehammer.