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Cover Story
Cut the Cord

-- by Sam Masud

Laying high-speed, high-bandwidth cable across the "last mile" (the remaining analog wires between the phone company's local Central Office switch and the customer) is an expensive and laborious proposition. But costs can be reduced and deployment sped up if the physical wire were eliminated.

That's the theory behind the new push for wireless data communications. In practice, the lack of standards, high equipment cost and sparse distribution will keep wireless mostly an also-ran in the race for high-speed datacom for the next few years. Once established, though, wireless networks will free you from dependence on a predefined transmission location and multiple modem/network configurations.

A number of companies already sell adapters or cellular-ready modems to connect cellular phones to e-mail-ready notebooks. But high transmission costs and potential security problems have kept most users' fingers off the send button.

Safe and Secure

A new technology, Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), eliminates at least one of these obstacles. CDPD allows you to transmit digital information securely over established cellular networks. Because it employs an IP protocol already in use on the Internet, and you can be assigned TCP/IP-style addresses, it's an obvious choice for wireless data transmissions. Last spring, AT&T and the Baby Bells made CDPD, also known as Wireless IP, available to 63 million potential customers in 33 metropolitan areas. By mid-1997 the last remaining major metropolitan areas-Kansas City and Atlanta-will be signed on.

Another standard, known as the Personal Communications Service (PCS), has taken hold more slowly because it has no existing cellular or radio base on which to build. In contrast to existing cellular analog networks, PCS uses digital transmission technology, providing end-to-end transmission between PCs without the need for conversion to analog form.

PCS is the darling of telecommunications analysts, who predict it will emerge as the dominant wireless technology. Free of the security problems of standard cellular transmissions, PCS promises seamless, personal phone connections for voice, data and fax transmissions wherever access is supported.

The Japanese have used a PCS system for portable phones, known as the Personal Handyphone, for two years now. In the U.S., Sprint is test marketing PCS Spectrum in small geographic areas. Although developers are betting billions on its eventual adoption, don't expect widespread availability until after 2000.

Most analysts agree we'll ultimately turn to satellite-connected broadband networks. To date, however, only Hughes Network Systems has successfully offered consumer-level satellite datacom. Through its relatively inexpensive DirectPC service, you send data requests over standard phone/modem connections and receive downloads at about 400Kbps. You should soon be able to buy DirectPC through computer outlets like CompUSA. Other projects, such as Motorola's Iridium, will use satellites to offer locationless cellular service.

Eye on the Sky

Far more ambitious is a startup called Teledesic, which is co-owned by Bill Gates and wireless pioneer Craig McCaw, who built the first commercial cellular network. Teledesic plans to link nearly 1,000 relatively inexpensive low-earth-orbit satellites into a worldwide overhead network. This network, which Gates has called the "Internet in the sky," will let you connect from anywhere in the world. First estimates say 20,000 users will be treated to anywhere from 16Kbps to 2Gbps of bandwidth beginning in 2002. Teledesic will sell the low end of that spectrum to individuals, reserving the highest bandwidths to interconnect terrestrial fiber networks.

Masud is an editor with CMP Media's Computer Reseller News.

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Copyright 1997 CMP Media Inc.

(From Windows Magazine, January 1997, page 206.)