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Commentary: Prospecting for a wireless gold rush

The wireless-communications world is locked into a gold rush to develop commercially practical solutions to increase spectrum capacities and overall speed.

    The wireless-communications world is locked into a gold rush with millions of dollars waiting for the companies that can develop commercially practical solutions to increase spectrum capacities and overall speed.

    Wireless service providers and carriers see a virtually limitless market for wireless services--not just cell phones that provide both voice and data connections to Web-based information, but also wireless modems for portable computers, wireless PDAs, and a host of more specialized devices for consumers and business.

    See news story:
    "Ultrawideband" wireless inches closer to market
    The main restriction on these markets are spectrum capacities and buildout timetables. Several technologies, including third-generation (3G) cellular soon to launch in Japan and Europe, 802.11b-based technologies and LMDS, promise solutions or at least improvements.

    Ultrawideband wireless technology, such as the technology being developed for commercial use by start-up Time Domain, works by shooting bursts of data spread over a wide bandwidth at very high transmission rates--as much as 2MB per second.

    The technology has several advantages. Because the signal consists of pulses rather than the continuous sine curve of traditional radio, and because it is spread over a very wide spectrum, it is much less sensitive to interference. Also, because it spreads its signal over a wide spectrum, it usually does not create noticeable interference for traditional, sine-curve signals that are confined to narrow bands. Ultrawideband technology is used in the military for high-definition radar and personnel tracking across a battlefield.

    Going to market
    However, the step from a promising technology to a practical product is very large, and Time Domain is a small company facing several challenges. First, it must focus tightly on one or at most two markets. Currently, it advertises a laundry list of potential applications, many of them esoteric, and if it tries to move into too many markets at once, it will dissipate its resources while accomplishing nothing.

    The decision as to which markets it should choose depends in part on how practical its technology is for large-scale deployment. Any launch requires transceivers to be installed to cover the target geography, and transceivers to be made available in end devices. It is very difficult for any service provider to fund continent-wide coverage buildouts. For this reason, we think it is more likely for this technology to be launched in a metropolitan or campus setting.

    Even then, Time Domain would need major sponsors that can afford to fund widespread development. For instance, a component manufacturer such as Intel, a system manufacturer such as Nokia, or a major carrier such as AT&T would be ideal sponsors, regardless of what markets Time Domain targets.

    The key to success will be geographic coverage. The technology with the widest coverage and highest bandwidth will win, but if the service providers need to make the ultimate choice, then coverage is more important than bandwidth. The problem that wireless data-only services face is that they do not have voice to subsidize the buildout of a national network. This is the reason why Metrocall and Ricochet will remain city-based technologies.

    If ultrawideband requires entirely new transponder and receiver equipment, Time Domain might look for a market that is not yet developed and that has built-in sponsors with deep pockets. For instance, while all of the automobile manufacturers have committed to adding wireless Internet and voice emergency connectivity to their cars, only Cadillac has created an actual network. If the auto companies picked ultrawideband for their technology, they would finance building the national network.

    Another approach would be to focus on markets with restricted geographies--government, education and medicine are the traditional targets. This limits the cost of launching while providing a captive customer base.

    Illegal and unproven
    The technology also needs regulatory approval. Although the FCC seems favorable to ultrawideband, the technology is currently illegal to use in the United States, and it must also gain approval from regulatory bodies in other countries to become a worldwide technology.

    Most ultrawideband development has been done in the lab, so it is unproven technology. The jury on ultrawideband is still out--not just because of the question of whether some companies will jump on the bandwagon (Nokia, Intel, etc.), but also with regard to whether the technology can become commercially viable--and if so, how quickly and at what cost? Another open question is how well ultrawideband technology will scale (how many access points, at what distance, and how many customers it can handle).

    Unless it overcomes each of these obstacles to achieving market and technological success--and particularly without a tight market focus and sponsorship from one or preferably several major players--ultrawideband will become just another good technology that never sees the light of day.

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