Much ink has been tracked along much paper, 10s of billions of dollars have been invested in licences and infrastructure, and much hyper-anticipation has been generated for the coming advent of the Wide Area Protocol (WAP) and the Third Generation (3G) mobile technology that will use it to make our lives even more wunnerful than they already are.
Life, though, has habit of slipping flies into what seemed the most secure and incorruptible jars of ointment. The fly that may turn WAP/3G rancid is an open standard called 802.11b, which was released in late 1999 by the international Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). 802.11b is not as well known as 3G, nor does it have such resonant monniker (it was invented by engineers not marketers), but there are many who believe that it may kill, or cripple, the WAP/3G goose before it starts laying all them golden eggs.
Why? Because the mainspring of the Internet is people-power. Those who do not understand that and try to impose their moneyed wills upon it are likely to find their backs being severely lashed.
802.11b gives people what they want. They can immerse themselves in the Net at 11 megabits per second anywhere they are close enough to an 802.11b access point (AP) – such as the ‘flying-saucer’ antennae in Apple’s 802.11b product (confusingly-named ‘Airport’).
And unlike 3G, no licence is required for 802.11b, because it runs at 2.4GHz, globally-unlicensed radio spectrum. An open standard running on free spectrum – yay! You can do it now, simply and cheaply. Stick saucer in your window and go walkabout. So all those who spent zillions buying 3G licences – US$70 billion in Europe alone – may find themselves with worthless (oops! almost keyed ‘worth lies’) airwaves.
802.11b offers us local area network spreading over Planet E by degrees. Every time someone adds another AP, our 11Mbps Net walkabouts can roam little further. MIT is said to be about to make its entire campus an 802.11b paradise; lannish neighbourhoods are springing up in the US.
802.11b’s 11Mbps is expected to rise to round 20Mbps when the modulation method is tweaked. And two faster 802.11 specifications are imminent: 802.11g, which also uses 2.4GHz, will hit 22Mbps in raw bandwidth; and 802.11a, which runs at 5.4GHz, will exceed 50Mbps.
Intersil, the major supplier of 802.11b chips, now offers the whole shebang on one sub-US$16 chip, and it is teaming up with Z-Com to offer it in Compact Flash card. Compact Flash is used in digital cameras, PDAs, electronic appliances, etc. The fact that Microsoft has thrown its weight behind 802.11b has probably added modestly to the technology’s momentum.
If your tongue has by now got tired of struggling through those ‘802.11b’ thickets, there is an unofficial alternative: ‘WiFi’.
The problem – there is always problem – is that WiFi is made for wireless LANs, so its range is not 3G’s cellphone kilometres. WiFi cell can reach 35-100 metres indoors and 100-300 metres outside (transmission-speed adjusts automatically in steps, from 11Mbps down to 1Mbps, according to distance and conditions). The theoretical service-load is 256 users, but that would carve the bandwidth into too many degraded slices, which makes the practical limit 15-20.
But WiFi access-point every 100-300 metres, powered by devices built round US$16 chips does not look an onerous incremental expense for CBD or suburban neighbourhood.
3G versus WiFi: the big, expensive, corporate gamble against the little, incremental, cheap, grassroots thingummy. Sending fast data to your new-and-special phone some time (we hope) against sending it to your existing computer/network now. Cellphone range against neighbourly range. Should be an interesting tussle.
Nobilangelo Ceramalus: Writer, commentator, journalist, desktop publisher, graphics-designer, illustrator, webmaster, photographer.