Message: 50
Date: 8.1.97
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Wireless Revisited

In the early days of cellular telephones, service providers touted "anything, anywhere, anytime," which I thought was real stupid. I suggested that a better jingle would be "nothing, nowhere, never - unless," where the "unless" clause was the added value of the wireless transmission, the real service being offered (see "Prime Time Is My Time," Wired 2.08, page 134).

Since those days, wireless service has grown in all sorts of places, for all sorts of reasons. For example, wireless phone systems are widely installed in developing nations because of their rapid deployment and low cost, even if there is no real need for mobility. Or, look at some developed nations, where people will carry cell phones purely for reasons of security, hardly the original purpose.

Like everybody else, I have a cell phone but never leave it on. In large part, this is because I don't want to be disturbed. It is also because I don't "do phones." I find email far more effective, and, as a result, I use telephony mostly for data, mostly from fixed landlines. Therefore, my day-to-day experience with radio frequency (RF) has been somewhat limited.

Socially acceptable bits
Recently, this changed. To my surprise, the change was both profound and obvious and had nothing to do with cell phones. Here is what happened: I installed a wireless LAN in my home. Mind you, I was one of the last to do this at the Media Lab. The system provides a 2-Mbps connection throughout my house - and that of my neighbor's (since I live in the city). I'm using Digital's RoamAbout system, based on Lucent's WaveLAN technology, which uses spread-spectrum transmission techniques. I am told it only modestly - more or less imperceptibly - interferes with household cordless phones (but since I don't have one, I'm not sure). My neighbors have not complained.

Operating a wireless LAN in your home has a stunning effect, especially in conjunction with a thin, lightweight laptop as elegantly designed as the IBM 560 ThinkPad. (Apple, take note.) The result is a new kind of socialization.

In the past, I would excuse myself from the dinner table, watching TV on the couch, or lazing around the house to go off and work at a keyboard. Being online meant not being a part of the household. But no one complains when you pick up a newspaper, magazine, or book while others are watching TV. Right?

Now, I can do the same with the Net and the Web and be no more antisocial than if I were reading a magazine. Think about it. Sounds trivial, but it sure nullifies the complaint my wife has had for more than 20 years: she says that my back is all she usually sees. Not any more.

This got me thinking: Was the Negroponte Switch correct after all?

Gilder can make you famous
George Gilder and I have shared the podium frequently, and I have learned a lot from him. One of our first encounters occurred about 10 years ago at an executive retreat organized by Northern Telecom (now called Nortel). At this meeting, I showed a slide that depicted wired and wireless information trading places. This idea had been prompted, in part, by some early HDTV discussions, during which I and others questioned whether broadcast TV should get any spectrum at all, since stationary TV sets could be better served by wires (read: fiber).

In contrast, the theory continued, anything that moves needs to be wireless. Phones, largely wired at the time, would go wireless, and TV, largely wireless, would get wired. Gilder called this "the Negroponte Switch," even though Jim McGroddy at IBM or someone at the Media Lab may have suggested it first.

A decade later, it seems that this whole switching of places has been contradicted left and right. Satellite TV is doing fine. HDTV just got new spectrum. And the cable business is starting to include telephony. So how should one look at RF today?

Many cell-phone users, believe it or not, think they are using a walkie-talkie-style communications system that is completely wireless - from one handset to another. In truth, most often there is a lot of wire in between. Typically, the wireless portion is only a fraction of the distance covered. For this reason, instead of the simplicity of the Negroponte Switch, think of the more complex public/private nature of the bits. Bits will travel wirelessly in proportion to the degree to which they're public.

The bits that represent the Super Bowl, for example, are well justified for delivery by satellite TV. There really is no better way to get the same bits to 150 million Americans simultaneously. My phone or computer, however, merit less wireless distance. In the case of my newfound marriage assistant and spread-spectrum LAN, it need reach only across my home. In the case of my TV remote control, it need reach only across the room.

What this suggests is that wireless communication should be designed with the nature of the bits in mind. This issue is not wired versus wireless but the strength of the signal. It also means that you had better not sell short the landline phone company or makers of fiber optic cable.

In the end, we have to remember that nature has provided us with only one radio spectrum, no matter how cleverly we choose to use it. In contrast, insofar as a single fiber is more or less equal to the whole RF spectrum, the bandwidth of fiber landlines is infinite, since we can keep on making more and more, running the factories three shifts a day, seven days a week. For this reason, the granularity of RF will get smaller and smaller, for more and more personal bits.

A good example of small-grain RF is the scale and extent of a home wireless LAN. You'll like the freedom it affords, and it might even help your marriage.

Next Issue: Redisintermediation

[Back to the Index of WIRED Articles | Back to Nicholas Negroponte's Home Page | Back to Media Lab Home Page]
[Previous | Next]

[Copyright 1997, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 5.08, August 1997.]