Wi-Fi may be the hottest way to connect to the Internet these days, but it's just the tip of the iceberg in wireless communications, say researchers at some of the world's top technology firms.
Working together in industry consortiums, the firms have already laid out plans for four new technologies that promise to make wireless Internet access cheaper, faster and farther reaching. If all goes according to schedule, consumers and business could begin to use some of the technologies by early 2005.
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The most mature of the technologies is WiMax, a long-range service being developed by 70 companies worldwide, including AT&T, Covad and Intel. Unlike current Wi-Fi hot spots, which have a reach of about 300 feet, WiMax stations will be able to send and receive signals up to 30 miles away. This makes them ideal for the "last-mile" problem that plagues many neighborhoods that are too remote to receive Internet access via cable or DSL.
In areas with cable or DSL access, WiMax will provide consumers with an additional, and possibly cheaper, alternative. "Our goal is to get competitive with cable and DSL," says Margaret LaBrecque, president of the WiMax Forum, a consortium created to ensure the interoperability of future WiMax products. "WiMax will enable an (Internet service provider) to set up a wireless link between itself and its customers, providing them with more options." LaBrecque expects WiMax services to be available early next year. The monthly cost is likely to be less than $50, the average cost today for Internet access via cable or DSL.
The downside to WiMax is that it is a "fixed access" system, meaning that customers must mount a dishlike antenna outside their home or office to access it. To get around this, researchers are developing an extension to WiMax called 802.16e.
The goal of 802.16e is to allow consumers to connect to the Internet while they are "moving at vehicular speeds." In other words, you might soon be able to check your e-mail while you're on the morning train thanks to a device that connects to your laptop. Intel has said that it will make such devices available to the public by 2006.
Also under development is a high-bandwidth extension to the current Wi-Fi standard. Researchers expect 802.11n to increase the speed of Wi-Fi connections by 10 to 20 times. Although many home users won't be able to benefit from the additional speed right away, because of limits on their cable or DSL connections, businesses are hoping the technology will allow them to forgo the burden of laying and maintaining Ethernet cabling throughout the building. Although it's unclear when this will become a reality, members of the 802.11n committee say the designs will be set later this year.
An alliance of microchip manufacturers led by Texas Instruments is developing a standard for transmitting large amounts of data short distances. Dubbed Ultrawideband, the technology is intended primarily for in-home use to connect computers, stereos and TVs to one another without wires.
"We want to eliminate that cable that goes between devices," says Jeff Harris, director of business development for advanced wireless technologies at General Atomics. "If you go and drop a few thousand dollars on a flat-panel television, we want you to be able to put it on the best wall in your house ? not just the wall that's closest to the cable outlet."
When it is launched in mid-2005, Ultrawideband also will let users stream MP3s from their computers to their stereos and record TV shows on their computers, as long as the devices are within 30 feet of one another.
The developers of tomorrow's wireless technologies seem to have one goal: to eliminate electrical wires. "The more cables we get rid of, the more people can focus on other things," Harris says.