John Chapman brims with enthusiasm. The director of Hewlett-Packard’s mobile and wireless strategy has just signed a three-year research agreement with NTT DoCoMo, the cellular spinoff of Japanese telecom giant NTT. The goal? To brainstorm the infrastructure for a wireless network with such abundant capacity that, according to Chapman, “we will no longer bother to measure it.” Hewlett-Packard has allied itself with NTT DoCoMo-whose name means “anywhere”-because the Japanese firm is the world’s leading mobile-Internet provider. An estimated 72 percent of Japanese cell-phone owners routinely connect to the Internet, compared with a mere six percent in the United States. Chapman believes that if Hewlett-Packard can offer Americans rich streaming video, data, graphics and voice over a high-speed network that reaches every street corner, subway platform, beachfront and backyard, they will sign up in droves.
How to build this broadband wireless network is the burning question. Telecom companies would need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to catapult today’s narrowband cell-phone infrastructure to broadband. This is no mere “upgrade.” Today’s meager cell phones and wireless Web devices connect to the Internet at a laggard 9,600 bits per second, less than one-fifth the speed of the average desktop modem. And even a desktop modem doesn’t qualify as broadband. Its speed has to be at least qua-drupled for users to enjoy instant Internet access and to view full-motion video with movielike quality.
Furthermore, the Wireless Application Protocol by which today’s mobile devices connect to the Internet typically supports only clunky, dumbed-down, black-and-white versions of a few hundred Web sites deliberately tailored to a tiny screen. Despite the constant commercials for “smart” phones and wireless wondergadgets from the likes of Sprint, AT&T, Palm and Kyocera, most people are frustrated by the embryonic “wireless Web.”
Given the huge expense to license new broadband spectrum from national governments, technical and regulatory battles over which emerging communications protocols to use, plus the need to overhaul cell towers and mobile devices, some experts wonder whether the benefits are worth the trouble. Do we really need streams of data flowing from cell towers everywhere so we can watch a CNN video clip as we step off a midtown curb, paying a steep per-minute fee for the privilege?
Maybe not. Outside of Japan, enthusiasm for this scenario seems to be waning, even among the telecom companies that would charge you for it. The cost appears so astronomical that voracious consumer demand for such amenities as digital video and music would be needed to cover it. No U.S. or European surveys indicate such demand exists, or that consumers would pay the premiums.
What is clear, however, is that consumers who are strolling or driving want reliable cell calls, paging, e-mail and fast, easy access to the entire full-color Web. None of which, in fact, requires broadband. Having taken a reality check, some telecom executives are promoting a new vision: improve the cellular system enough so consumers get uninterrupted phone calls and instant access to the Web over a trendy handheld device while they’re outdoors, and reward them with streaming, multimedia, broadband brilliance once they step indoors, at home, office or hotel, on trains or on planes. When the frenzy over broadband dies down a bit, is that what the future is really going to look like?