The Wireless Revolution Revisited

July 1, 2001

The core technology took some twists and turns before it finally attained killer-ap status.

There has been considerable interest and discussion of late in the area of wireless. To most broadcasters, this term has a connotation quite different from the current application of the word. It conjures archaic rather than futuristic concepts, with images of Marconi, DeForest, Armstrong and contemporaries tinkering with various technologies that eventually became radio. That development process has some interesting parallels to today.

Back then, wireless was short for wireless telegraphy. Marconi's original intent was point-to-point message delivery to ships at sea or other remote locations unreachable by telegraph lines. The content of these transmissions was Morse Coded-data via Continuous wave (CW) modulation. It wasn't until later that the application of public, point-to-multipoint service using audio via AM emerged, and the broadcast industry was born. The core technology took some twists and turns before it finally attained killer-ap status.

Today, wireless is short for wireless Internet, which attempts to extend the Internet to portable devices. In the new wireless, content is still-represented via data pulses using an efficient coding algorithm (albeit at substantially higher throughputs than the old approach). The Internet was also initially designed for point-to-point communications, but has been later adapted for a point-to-multipoint modality by some applications.

The Internet has already come a long way from its start as a haven for government and academia to its current role as an important engine of commerce. Its next logical step involves shedding the tether to the desktop, allowing mobile and portable usage. This presents yet another parallel to radio: Although always a wireless medium, the original radio receivers were large, homebound devices. Portability didn't enter the consumer radio environment until decades later.

Worlds apart

So much for similarities; now let's consider the differences between these two wireless environments. Perhaps most fundamental is that because the Internet is inherently a two-way communications system, any wireless device used by Internet consumers requires both a receiver and a transmitter. This makes the wireless Internet device more like a cell phone than a radio.

As a result, the first wireless Internet devices have taken the form factor of enhanced cell phones or PDAs. Targeting or re-versioning of content for the different displays found on these-devices is a current area of development. Doing this in a broadly compatible way is a challenge. Radio also faced this issue, but only to the extent of handling stereo and monaural audio compatibly. Internet devices must consider display of text, graphics and streaming content, plus a wide range of applications and content types.

Another distinction between broadcast radio and the wireless Internet is the short-haul vs. long-haul variation in the wireless data world. Two-way wireless data interchange standards have been developed for large-scale transmission similar to broadcasting's coverage zones. Broadband versions of this modality are being developed under the terms of 2.5G, 3G and 4G wireless systems. Meanwhile, standards have also been developed for smaller-scale wireless coverage zones, such as within a single user-domain. This implies that a home might have broadband Internet access via a traditional wired service (e.g., via DSL or cable modem) but redistribute such a service to various nodes (receivers) around the home in wireless fashion. Examples of short-range wireless are Bluetooth and IEEE 802.11.

A final contrast is the cost and installed base of these systems. At present, there is no comparison. The bar has been set quite high by radio for penetration and low-cost, portable service. New entrants will have to become very cost-effective very quickly and/or offer substantially different and more appealing content. For this reason, it seems likely that even if emerging wireless services enjoyed stupendous success, broadcast radio will not be replaced but only supplemented by wireless Internet. Further, if wireless is a hit, broadcast radio providers are well positioned to move into the market themselves and extend their established brand via cross-promotion to the new platform. Ultimately, therefore, broadcasters needn't worry much about the new “wireless,” but neither should they ignore its development. If played properly, broadcasters can hold a dominant position in both the old and the new wireless worlds.

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