The Road Wirer
Perspectives on "The Wireless Web"
by Mark Sedenquist
Since the launch of www.RoadTripAmerica.com in early 1996, the Road Wirer has been actively searching for the means to connect to the Internet "at reasonable speeds, at reasonable cost, using wireless technology, from anywhere in North America." For most of the last four years, I have used the terms "World Wide Web" and "Internet" interchangeably whenever I expressed our desire to attain wireless connectivity. This connectivity was perceived as the ability to log on to a Web site like www.roadtripamerica.com or www.abcnews.com from the backcountry shores of Flathead Lake as efficiently as if we were parked in downtown Los Angeles. The marketing hype promulgated by the major USA telecommunication companies has tended to reinforce the notion that we can connect wirelessly to what we all know as Web pages by introducing terms like "The Wireless Web." To a large degree, I think such marketing campaigns are counterproductive, and there's a need for clarity about the real nature of wireless Internet connections. Since I need a term to differentiate between the content accessible through wired connections and what's available wirelessly, I've come up with the term Wireless Internet Connections or WIC. I know it's not much clearer than Wireless Web, but it's the best term I've come up with so far.
In my view, the content available to us through hardwire/cable connections to the current Web is as different as apples are from kumquats with respect to what is available via WIC. Today, if I want to look at the images and graphics of the RoadTrip America website or study the orbital paths of the communication satellites on the Loral website, I am going to find as high a two-way connection and data-download speed as I can. The irony of our search over the last four years for a wireless connection is that today, it is much easier to find a wired land-line Internet connection than it was in 1994 when we began our on-the-road adventure. With the rollout of connection portals like those provided by Kinko's, truck-stop lounges, public libraries, RV parks, hotel business centers, and airport kiosks, many of the challenges of finding high-speed access on the road have been eliminated or substantially reduced. More to the point, I think the financial incentive to supply truly wireless high-speed access has been reduced by these continuing improvements in wire-line access methods.
Personal communications devices, whether they are cellular phones, digital pagers, PDA's, etc. are being developed that are better suited to delivering forms of content different from what we associate with the standard World Wide Web formats. Personally, I think laptop and notebook-type computers will be rendered obsolete as the industry shifts to providing Internet-like content geared for both these personal communication devices and widely available public "smart terminals" connected to high-speed wired connections for World Wide Web-type content streams.
Having said that, I am the first to admit that my analysis may be flawed. Currently there are hundreds of companies who are investing millions of dollars in transforming the current content forms of the World Wide Web into something that can be accessed by devices available today or "sometime in the near future." I have just returned from the CTIA-IT show in Santa Clara, California, where I learned about two companies you should check out.
The first is GlobeWave based in Arlington, Virginia. GlobeWave has developed a PCMCIA Type III Wireless Modem (V.34) card that includes a built-in 0.6 watt cellular transceiver that uses the AMPS analog network. The company is claiming data transfer rates on the analog system up to 28.8 Kbps. It achieves this speed by the nature of the circuit-switched AMPS network. Unlike CDPD, which requires sharing the available bandwidth, which can lead to slower transfer speeds, the circuit-switched network creates the metaphorical equivalent of exclusive conduit-path routing of the data. I haven't tested this equipment yet, but even if the top speed were 15-20 Kbps it would still be twice as fast as any analog service currently available. Yehuda Mark, technical guru at GlobeWave, was unable to quote current telephony rates since the pricing plans are still being worked out, but the modem is in the $400 to $450 price range. It is likely that this price will drop as they complete their marketing models. One caveat: an ISP needs to be able to support the V.34 protocol in order to achieve these 20 Kbps+ speeds. To my knowledge, not all of the ISP's currently support this protocol.
The second company worthy of a look is Clickmarks.com. Clickmarks provides services to both enterprise and personal users and the company's goal is to "provide any content to any device." Clickmarks is a utility that allows an individual user to create a custom portal, called a "Habitat." This Habitat can aggregate any content, (headlines, images, graphs, etc.) from a variety of Web-based sources, and the content is automatically updated as the Websites update their content. The software then translates the content sent to the Habitat into a wireless-compliant form. Martha Wu, Clickmarks spokesperson, told me that the content can be viewed on PC's, Palm III, V, VII, cellular phones, pagers, and Voice XML channel devices.
A few days ago Sam Churchill posted a reply to a query I had placed on the Wireless Forum, about the pricing of the two-way satellite system known as StarBand. The nature of his response prompted me to look at his Web site. It is an excellent source of information about the current state of affairs for Local Area Networks and the outlook for satellite and broadband connectivity of all types.
Finally, I have received a few questions about when I was going to prepare a follow-up to the column about Globalstar I wrote in August. The news is: there is no news. I spoke to some folks affiliated with the Globalstar program and the data service is still in trials. So, for the time being, StarBand, DirecPC and Globalstar remain in a dead heat to be the first to roll out two-way satellite data service to mere mortals like us. If you are using one of these services, please let me know. I look forward to hearing from you.
Las Vegas, Nevada
October 23, 2000