Once upon a time, research and development
(R&D) departments were the backbone of technology companies, fueling
innovation and commerce. But since those heady days, corporations have
found it more efficient (and cheaper) to shift much of that R&D into
higher education where enthusiastic students and professors are willing
to stay up all night figuring out better mousetraps. Without the usual
Wireless firms have funded several university programs
that aim to develop new technologies that make better use of spectrum
capacity, frequency efficiency, and battery power, among other areas.
More rare are programs focused solely on wireless Internet technologies,
which have acquired increased importance as wireless-enabled laptops and
personal digital assistants (PDAs) proliferate. For such narrow focus on
the mobile Web, corporations are increasingly turning to one place:
WINLAB, or the Wireless Information Network Laboratory,
was founded at New Jersey's Rutgers University in 1989 to develop
wireless networking technology. As the Internet exploded over the last
decade, the program tackled everything from mobile computing to
high-speed modem design to radio resource management to network
architectures and protocols. More than 20 global corporate sponsors from
the U.S., Europe, and Japan now pay up to $70,000 annually for the right
to license intellectual property produced by WINLAB's research
(Associate members with limited research access pay $30,000 per
"It's a very interesting shift," says
Dipankar Raychaudhuri, who became WINLAB's director in July 2001.
"Corporations are becoming more short-term driven. Their R&D
labs are starting to shrink. Universities are more efficient. The raw
human talent is there." The program has about 20 faculty and staff,
along with a fluctuating core of 30 to 50 students.
WINLAB has produced some 75 graduates who obtained Masters or Doctorate
degrees in wireless technology and have gone to work in the wireless
sector. The center also receives grants from the National Science
Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
and the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology (NJCST). So like
many similar academic programs, WINLAB feeds off a support axis made up
of academia, private industry, and
One of WINLAB's most intriguing projects
in the new age of third-generation (3G) networks is known simply as
"Infostations." The idea is to create ultra high-speed,
short-range local area networks (LANs) that could blast massive amounts
of data to mobile devices in quick bursts lasting only moments,
depending on the content. The ultimate goal is to develop base stations
capable of 500 megabits per second, although current technology maxes
out around 54 Mbps. "We have a good chance of reaching 500,"
says Raychaudhuri. "It's very real. It's just a few years
away." The concept becomes most interesting when applied as a
supplement to future 3G networks that support "always-on"
connections. Here's how it would work:
A pedestrian or
motorist with a wireless PDA would pass by an Infostation (basically a
souped-up wireless LAN base station), which could detect the device and
immediately dump huge streams of data into its hard drive. Assuming
WINLAB researchers eventually reach the 500-Mbps goal, someone could
theoretically download the text of several newspapers and maybe even a
few video clips in less than one second. Infostations could even be
constantly updated from a remote central server to ensure the most
recent information gets blasted to mobile devices.
Infostation is like a wireless cache," says Raychaudhuri.
"Popular content gets pushed to an Infostation and then gets pushed
to consumers in an opportunistic fashion. You could even put
personalized information in an Infostation." Under that scenario, a
person could get their customized news, stock quotes, sports scores, and
other data updated automatically to their wireless device every time
they pass by an Infostation. It would not only detect the device itself,
but that a particular user owned the device.
Indeed, such base
stations could be strategically placed in downtown areas-constantly
shooting data to any wireless device that even momentarily entered its
range of up to 300 feet-and relieve stress on the cellular network at
large by offloading the highest bandwidth usage. As WINLABers are fond
of noting, this creates a variation on the "anytime-anywhere"
coverage of traditional cellular systems. With Infostations, as they
like to say, it's "manytime-manywhere." In addition,
WINLAB researchers claim that Infostation deployment across 3G networks
could reduce by two or three times the buildout costs because they are
cheaper to deploy than cellular towers.
envision several uses for Infostations: Museums could send tour
information to people as they pass through the front door. Airports
could beam flight information to devices in the terminals. A retail
store could send detailed product descriptions to shoppers. Travelers
could even receive specific data on every town they enter, listing maps
and even pointing out local landmarks, gas stations, and restaurants.
"Pretty much any neighborhood you're in, you could have
information on it," says Richard Frenkiel, WINLAB's director
of strategic planning. "As you pass from Infostation to
Infostation, it could update
WINLAB's universe, such services would work just as well for
motorists as they do for pedestrians. Services could shoot data such as
maps, navigation tools, or even video-on-demand to motorists either lost
or just seeking to silence their kids in the back seat. "You could
watch movies as if they are broadcast to you, when in fact it's
being downloaded in chunks as you pass by Infostations," says Ivan
Seskar, WINLAB's associate director of information technology. In
other words, a car barreling down the highway would grab five or ten
minutes of a movie from an Infostation every few miles, creating the
illusion to the viewer that it was being continuously
Of course, such ambitions may be considerably far off.
"To make it successful, you'd have to be on every
highway," notes Christine Loredo, a senior analyst at the Strategis
Group. "And that wouldn't be cheap." She adds that such
services would be limited to the U.S. and Canada, considering that
Europeans and Asians don't share the same "road-trip"
culture prevalent in North America.
And this all assumes that
the integration of Infostations and larger 3G networks would actually
work. So far, it's all just theory. And most experts agree that for
such a synergy to effectively make efficient use of bandwidth, the
consumer must not trip over the complexities of the network. Wireless
devices must be able to sense incoming and outgoing data both from the
3G network as well as the vicinity of the Infostation without any
hiccups that would require the user to constantly switch device
settings. "I see how it could offload some capacity," says
Loredo, "but it's got to be seamless. The consumer can't
know about it." Agrees Raychaudhuri: "You have to keep it
hidden from the consumer. If you do, then it just acts like a turbo
boost to your service."
Eventually, WINLAB researchers
theorize that Infostations could even democratize access to wireless
networks. At roughly $200 per Infostation, Frenkiel says even the
smallest businesses could afford to deploy them in their stores, helping
them compete more ably with the Wal-Marts of the world. "One of the
many ideas is a mom-and-pop Infostation," notes Frenkiel.
"When you're near a grocery store or something, you can access
anything you want. It would seem like anyone could put these in. But
I'm not really sure that's how it's going to play
out." So how will it? "That's the 64-thousand dollar
question," he says. "It's hard to predict what people
will use this for."
How to Build It, and WillThey Come?
And therein lies the rub. After all, no
grocery store is going to install Infostations in the aisles unless a
good number of people walking in the front door are armed with always-on
wireless devices. No content producers are going to create automatic
downloading services or on on-the-go video on demand unless Infostations
are relatively ubiquitous. That's years away. And that
chicken-and-egg problem isn't even worth discussing until 3G
deployment becomes a widespread reality-a prospect not helped by the
constant barrage of deployment delays around the world, especially in
the U.S. Even assuming 3G deployments accelerate, it's unclear what
level of broadband content users will demand via their wireless
There's a big difference between news text or
stock quotes or video-on-demand movies. And will enough people use such
broadband services to require the use of supplemental Infostations?
"All of this really depends on when these 3G networks take
off," says Loredo.
Other hurdles also exist. For one thing,
wireless LANs that use the 802.11 protocol use unlicensed bands that are
prone to interference. Such problems become even trickier when moving
pedestrians or motorists are constantly coming in and out of range of
each base station. Loredo notes that trees on highways and tall
buildings in cities could prove quite vexing to Infostation reception,
requiring potentially much trial-and-error in figuring out where to
position each one to get maximum coverage.
researchers note that regulators could eventually allocate specific
spectrum for Infostation usage. And because Infostations need such a
short range of signal reach, extremely high frequency bands (which are
unsuitable for cellular networks because signals degrade very quickly)
would be adequate.
Despite all of the uncertainties, WINLAB
researchers are undeterred. Raychaudhuri notes that other WINLAB
projects are addressing many outlying issues, including one new program
(currently shoring up funding) that will research ways to perfect
"system-on-a-chip" architectures that promote low power
consumption, smaller devices, and "always-on" architectures.
Raychaudhuri even foresees a day in which small system-on-a-chip badges
on clothing could sense body heat and turn up the air conditioning in
the room when needed. "We have to apply Moore's Law to
wireless," he says.
The researchers at WINLAB appear to be
giving it their best shot.
Mobile Research Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports,
analysis and in-depth articles about the wireless research
Michael Grebb has
previously written for The 'now-defunct' Industry Standard,
Business 2.0, and eCompany. From Washington DC, he covers the impact of
mobile technology on modern society.