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Technology | Going Mobile

Mobile technology, with its promise of allowing users to work, play and shop any time, anywhere, is poised to lift off.

Hurdle: The industry faces the daunting challenge of persuading Americans to hang up their lowly telephone modems.

April 18, 2002|JIM COATES | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

There's a strong whiff of the same old, same old wafting through the wireless world.

Billions of dollars are being spent to roll out networks and devices designed to foster a mobile revolution. They use high-speed radio technologies with names such as 3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ultrawide band.

Think of it as a marriage of the cell phone and the cable modem: a new generation of wireless hand-held devices such as the familiar Palms but capable of high-speed Internet features such as video e-mail, music and blazing file transfers from any place on Earth to any other place you happen to roam.

But what a bitter ring of familiarity it has, this talk about a third generation of mobile phones and allied devices that access the Internet without wires.

It hardly differs from the hype that fueled the first rush to get high-speed connections to home and office computers for e-commerce. That crusade to connect America to broadband lasted maybe four years before stumbling last year.

It's a bit premature to start passing out the party hats and confetti for the great revolution that wireless evangelists say awaits.

The question is: Can wireless somehow bring about the miracle that far-faster fiber-optic lines failed to produce?

Marketers have rushed to push anything that contains the "m" word, "mobile." But it's hard to forget that the last tech frenzy left us with an incredibly powerful global fiber-optic network that remains more than 90% unused.

All that dark fiber swallowed the hopes of companies such as Cisco Systems Inc., Nortel Networks Corp., Lucent Technologies Inc., AT&T Corp. and 3Com Corp. that now are gasping for air.

These companies stand to gain greatly--maybe even rebound to prior glory--if the world embraces all the new mobile devices that soon will pour onto the market.

It wasn't all disaster, of course.

Although the Internet meltdown blitzed the bulk of the dot-coms, e-commerce today is almost commonplace.

There is an important e-lesson here: Those selling the dream of using mobile phones or personal digital assistants to connect to the Net should remember and respect the lowly telephone modem.

Today, the majority of American Internet users remain content to dial up from their homes using roughly the same technology that existed when the information revolution began.

In fact, 88% of Americans accessing the Internet do so from conventional dial-up modems using connection speeds of 56 kilobits per second or slower. Only 12% of online Americans use cable modems, digital subscriber lines or other high-speed connections, according to the latest studies from the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a Washington-based technology policy think tank.

Internet service providers that use cable modems such as Princeton, N.J.-based RCN Corp. and AT&T Broadband are struggling to support existing customers and find new ones.

Those selling the dream of third-generation high-speed wireless access, or 3G, must convince the world that people who don't seem to want high speed in the comfort of their own homes will want it on their mobile phones.

But many of those who have experienced the excitement of the new wireless world are eager to embrace it. Consumers are buying mobile devices, such as the recently introduced Samsung SPH-I300 and the Handspring Treo, which combine a PDA with a cell phone. Businesses are adding wireless networks that can provide Internet access at airports, hotels and college campuses.

There is much to admire about the head-spinning array of clever wireless technologies. It is, after all, an engineering triumph to build systems that can slice and dice radio transmissions and create a 2-ounce telephone that carries moving pictures as effectively as a 40-pound television set.

Most likely, a 3G phone will always be on, just like a PC with a broadband connection. Link them with the new global positioning satellite radios, and employers suddenly know where each worker is at any given time.

Whether it's a cab service coordinating pickups, emergency operators dispatching police squad cars or a sales manager tracking order takers, 3G has huge new powers. Such gadgets will tell worried parents where their children are or how far a commuting spouse is from the front door.

Maybe Americans will learn to use a new palette of technology tools, such as sending a digital picture on 3G phones without making a full-fledged call.

Or maybe we'll just do what we did when the miracle of fiber-optic broadband was poised to change our world. Maybe we'll just stay at home, content to play with our trusty old 1G analog telephone modems.

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