Wireless Nets Future Under a Cloud

Despite uncertainties, companies continue to roll out products, services

The CTIA wireless show may have been staged here in the glitz capital of the country, but the focus was far from flashy. Where just one year ago the conference, sponsored by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, was a no-holds-barred celebration of new technology, this year the mood was cautious as industry giants debated the merits of a "wireless Internet" and discussed what to do about radio spectrum shortages.

Yahoo Inc.s Jerry Yang said that wireless technology overall hasnt shown the "hockey stick curve" that CTIA officials have predicted. "Your chart is like two years, three years out, and its been like that for the last two or three years," Yang, co-founder of the Santa Clara, Calif., company, told CTIA CEO Tom Wheeler during a keynote discussion. He added that todays wireless Internet services are too cumbersome for the average user to understand.

Yang was one of a group of executives who spent much of the show pouring water on an idea that has sizzled its way through the industry for several months: that wireless Internet access will skyrocket in the next two years, surpassing and possibly replacing Web access through the PC.

Dell Computer Corp. CEO Michael Dell, Intel Corp. CEO Craig Barrett and Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer all took the stage to knock some wind out of wireless, too. While all three companies have wireless strategies of one sort or another, none of the men seemed overly concerned that wireless handheld devices will take over the world.

"Today, the real action in wireless, as far as were concerned, is [wireless LAN protocol] 802.11 in notebooks," Dell said, adding that in the future the Round Rock, Texas, company plans to support high-speed wide-area wireless networks such as GPRS (General Packet Radio Service). "We dont have any problem with PDAs [personal digital assistants], but all of those users [who have a PDA] also have a PC," he said. "For the foreseeable future, I dont think thats going to change."

Intels Barrett, whose company, also based in Santa Clara, makes processors for both PCs and handheld devices, backed up Dells assertion, knocking the idea of "the wireless Internet."

"There is one Internet," Barrett said. "Nobodys going to redo it. There will be scalable content, but providers arent going to build specific content for wireless. ... None of us wants to have asynchronous lifestyles." Ballmer, of Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash., agreed. "The Internet is the Internet," he said.

Skepticism aside, many top vendors took the opportunity to roll out wireless gear at the show.

Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson AB introduced two handsets, the monochrome T39 and the color-screen T68, both of which support Global System for Mobile Communications, the network most widely available in Europe, and GPRS, the "always-on" second- generation wireless network that is supposed to offer speeds of more than 100 K bps. Ericsson, based in Stockholm, Sweden, also introduced a snap-on digital camera, the Communicam MCA-10, which is designed to send images via GPRS.

Nokia Corp., of Espoo, Finland, unveiled two screen phones, the 8310 and the 6310, both of which are designed to run optimally on the GPRS network.

Motorola Inc., based in Schaumburg, Ill., announced partnerships with several companies, including one with Sprint Corp. to conduct network trials porting Java 2 Micro Edition applications to cell phones.

Sun Microsystems Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif., and Lucent Technologies Inc. announced plans to join forces on efforts to run IP-based applications over third-generation networks using Lucents switches and Suns servers and software.

Lucent, of Murray Hill, N.J., also demonstrated 3G transmissions (specifically, cdma2000 1X) on prototype handsets from Kyocera Corp., of Kyoto, Japan, and on wireless modems from Sierra Wireless Inc., of Richmond, British Columbia.

Sprint, of Westwood, Kan., used the show to lay out its five-year plan for 3G networks.

But officials from all those companies acknowledged that GPRS isnt likely to be widespread before next year and that network innovation after that is in the hands of the government. Much was said criticizing the current process by which the U.S. government allocates radio spectrum.

"Rules and regulations need to be modified when there are technology and innovation changes," said Motorola CEO Tom Galvin, who suggested that the government provide some kind of spectrum-auction rebate to wireless carriers, something along the lines of President Bushs tax plan. Beyond the price, carriers complained about the lack of spectrum in general. "Were running out of spectrum, and our government holds the key," said John Stanton, CEO of VoiceStream Wireless Corp., based in Bellevue, Wash. "U.S. companies operate under a spectrum cap thats unknown to foreign carriers."

In other news, ScreamingMedia Inc. is working with Lucent to develop streaming audio and video content for 3G networks via Lucents MiLife Media Platform. OracleMobile, Oracle Corp.s wireless products and services division, announced plans to support Sonera SmartTrust Ltd.s security platform. Later in the year,Oracle9i Application Server Wireless Edition will support SmartTrust Secure Servers wireless PKI (public-key infrastructure), meaning that wireless devices that link to the network through Oracle9iAS will support PKI.