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New technology aims to speed Net surfing

Nearly 30 years ago, Martin Cooper turned the communications industry upside down. Now he wants to do it again.

Nearly 30 years ago, Martin Cooper turned the communications industry upside down. Now he wants to do it again.

Cooper was the inventor of Motorola's first mobile cellular telephone in the early 1970s. Today he is leading new entrant ArrayComm, an upstart with ambitions to create a new kind of high-speed wireless Internet service that's as portable as the transistor radio.

The company sees a day where Net access goes far beyond the computer and today's telephone or cable networks. A subscriber would turn on a wireless Internet radio, or a Net connected bill-paying machine, or a wireless video player. The applications would be up to the content providers, Cooper says, while ArrayComm would provide the technology.

"We're suggesting this is a really new way of doing business," Cooper says. "We think that if we provide the fundamental (technology), then lots of people High speed pipe dreams? will build the applications."

Cooper's company is one of many--large and small--that are looking to capture a slice of still-elusive broadband wireless success. Mobile phone use around the world has exploded, and industry analysts have predicted that more than 1 billion wireless phones will be in use by the year 2003.

The industry is increasingly focusing on ways to send more than simple voice conversations through the airwaves, however. Already wireless data companies, businesses and technologies are springing up daily, trying to bring the meteoric success of the Internet to the tiny screens of mobile phones.

But today's mobile phone Internet connections are molasses-slow, and the carriers' networks aren't built to handle large amounts of Net traffic. The industry is looking ahead a year or two to a third-generation mobile phone technology that will speed connections to the point where they could average two or three times faster than the speediest dial-up modems.

Cooper and ArrayComm think they have a better idea, however.

At 70 years old, Cooper has one of the longest and most distinguished reputations in the wireless business. His work kicked off Motorola's mobile phone business, and he later founded a cellular billing company that captured 75 percent of that market. At ArrayComm, he's still tightly involved in the day-to-day business, but recently brought Nitin Shah, Lucent's former vice president for wireless application development, on board to help develop the company's Net strategy.

The company's roots are grounded in a technology that improves the efficiency of mobile phone transmissions. The ArrayComm "smart antenna" system is already in operation in mobile phone networks across Asia, although it has not been adopted here in the United States.

The ArrayComm system essentially operates by using a series of antennae--and enormous processing power--to target and track wireless subscribers more precisely. The system produces considerably less interference than traditional wireless signals, allowing a given amount of wireless spectrum--the "airwaves" that carry the signal--to serve more people at once.

In the Internet world that means faster download times. With the next generation of its technology, dubbed "i-Burst," the company says it will be able to provide connections of about 1-megabit per second (Mbps) per subscriber. That's faster than most consumer high-speed telephone services, and faster than what most subscribers realistically get from their cable modems.

That comes at a cost, however. Cooper and his company say the ArrayComm technology is geared for "portable" rather than mobile systems--which means the systems can be used by devices moving slowly, but not by someone trying to dial up the high-speed Net in a moving car or train. Analysts say that will be a strong market for many applications using laptops or other emerging computing devices.

"ArrayComm understands that a lot of high-speed data will not be done in a mobile mode. A lot will be done with portable devices," said Jane Zweig, executive vice president of Herschel Shosteck Associates, a wireless research and consulting firm. "If their solution does what they say it does, it could provide an attractive solution for operators."

ArrayComm is looking to license its i-Burst technology to communications carriers as part of its strategy. But there are other "smart antenna" companies in the market, all of which will be competing for the carriers' business. Cooper and Shah are thinking much larger.

The company says it has a deal pending with at least one large content company, and possible wireless carriers, that will help it build an entirely new wireless infrastructure in the United States. That means it has to buy spectrum from the government, and build cellular phone towers across the country--a wildly expensive proposition.

But Cooper and his team say they are close to having the partners and capital they need for that kind of operation.

If that infrastructure can be built and funded by nontraditional wireless phone carriers, it could be used for entirely new kinds of applications, Cooper and his team say. Marketing or content companies could create portable devices built specifically for distributing music, video or any other high-bandwidth application, without going through a computer or trying to adapt a cell phone or other device for a new use.

"The level of simplicity around operating a transistor radio is very much the vision we have, and of those people we're talking to," Shah says. "You can switch on a transistor radio and you don't worry about what kind of bit rate you're getting over the air. More important is that you can get your local rock station."

While the next generation of ArrayComm's technology remains in the trial stage, analysts are cautiously optimistic about its potential for use in existing mobile phone networks. They're taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the more ambitious goals, looking for ArrayComm to deliver on its promised partnerships first.

"This is essentially a repackaging of technology that they tried to sell to wireless carriers, and didn't get very far," said John Sullivan, a technology analyst with Phillips International. "I'm not entirely convinced on the consumer market applications. I think they might have better luck looking at business applications."

Much of that depends on the source of funding, however. If the promise of support by a large consumer-focused content company comes through, then ArrayComm's proposed service would likely keep that direction. And that's where Cooper thinks he can begin reinventing the wireless platform, a little bit at a time.

"We're not going to take on the whole world," Cooper says. "We only need 10 or 20 million customers to have a couple billion dollar business."