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Dell hustling toward wireless Internet access

The founder of Dell Computer predicts that wireless broad access will likely displace its landline counterparts, such as cable or DSL.

NEW YORK--Michael Dell sees wireless Internet access as the future of portable computing--and maybe of all personal computing.

At a Dell Computer reception here last night, the boyish-looking CEO told CNET News.com that wireless broadband likely will displace its landline counterparts, such as cable and digital subscriber lines (DSL).

"This is one reason Dell is embracing existing wireless technologies like (IEEE) 802.11 and putting wireless antennas in Latitude notebooks," Dell said.

So serious is Dell about wireless that on Monday he created a new wireless group that reports directly to him. Moe Grzelakowski, a former Motorola executive, is heading it.

Dell Computer isn't the only PC manufacturer looking at wireless. Compaq Computer and IBM are also investing heavily in wireless technologies. But for Dell, which increasingly must look for ways to generate revenue beyond the box, differentiators like wireless mean new revenue streams vital to the company's future.

The idea of wireless Internet access is nothing new. Carriers and PC makers have cut deal after deal to ensure that cell phones and handheld devices can connect over existing wireless infrastructure to corporate networks and the Internet.

But with the wireless speeds topping out at 14.4 kbps in most areas, performance is inadequate for most portable users. Dell believes broadband wireless access may be the answer for portable users, as well as for consumers and small businesses craving high-speed Internet access.

Broadband wireless providers such as Metricom are ramping up speeds to 128 kbps. In July, Metricom will launch 128-kbps wireless services in Atlanta and San Diego in advance of a 21-market launch later this summer.

While Dell wouldn't Wireless takes center stagedisclose his company's partners in the wireless venture, he said the PC maker is testing broadband wireless at its headquarters in Round Rock, Texas.

"Once you've used it, you don't want anything else," Dell said. "With broadband wireless, a notebook is truly portable."

Dell's interest in wireless broadband transcends its value to portables and extends to obstacles to growth faced by cable and DSL services. In the case of cable, most companies must replace existing wires with fiber. For DSL, limitations inherent in copper wiring mean homes must be fairly close to a telco's switching office. And there are many places the service will never reach.

These infrastructure limitations mean only 13 of every 100 homes will have DSL by 2003, according to research company International Data Corp.

At the same time, demand for wireless access to corporate networks and the Internet is booming and creating more interest in wireless broadband, Dell said. He predicted broadband wireless would be able to reach many areas cut off from cable and DSL services.

The number of wireless-device users with inbound and outbound data and information will reach 61.5 million in 2003, up from 7.4 million last year, an increase of more than 700 percent, according IDC.

In addition to addressing wireless broadband's future, Dell discussed Transmeta's Crusoe processor, a hot item at this year's show. With Fujitsu, Hitachi, IBM and NEC backing Transmeta's low-voltage alternative to Intel's Mobile Pentium chips, Dell had to make his company's intentions clear.

"We are definitely looking very, very closely at the Transmeta processor," Dell said. While he wouldn't comment specifically on future product plans, Dell said the chip's lower power consumption is a compelling feature.

But, he cautioned, "It relies on emulation (to run Windows programs), and until now emulation hasn't delivered the required performance."