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The Router Stuff

MIT’s “personal router” project promises you true freedom of wireless choice.
April 27, 2001

You love wireless, but you don’t love the way today’s wide-area service providers lock you into slow data rates and one-size-fits-all gadgets. A “personal router” project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology promises to break your chains, opening up rich choices of attractive new devices and local-area wireless options.

“We want to change the economic model of how wireless access is handled,” declared John Wroclawski of the MIT Lab for Computer Science and Internet and Telecommunications Consortium. Wroclawski gave an update on the year-old project last week at MIT.

The personal router is a pager-sized device that “sits between you and the rest of the world, negotiating on your behalf with what could be a very broad range of wireless service providers,” Wroclawski explained.

On one side, the personal router might connect you to your Sprint cell-phone account, your home PC (via a Bluetooth short-distance link) or wireless local net offered, say, by your local pizza shop. On the other side, it would link to your handheld PC, cell phone or other “personal digital accoutrements” like a Bluetooth-ready earphone.

But most important, it would act as an agent on your behalf, helping you pick the services you want at any given time and transitioning smoothly between them as necessary.

Design Challenges

A prototype router repackages a handheld design originally developed for the Communicator project at the Laboratory for Computer Science. The device includes built-in Bluetooth support plus two PC Card slots to handle various wireless flavors.

Among current technical barriers, each wireless application must figure out what resources (such as a cell phone or earphone) are available. It then must deliver what you want-for example, knowing when to deliver a map and when to deliver spoken instructions.

The MIT team wants to make it as simple as possible for you to choose among services and for the system to learn your preferences. One approach is to offer buttons that let you select a cheaper or a better service, or stay at a flat rate, with one meter showing your current rate and another giving a taxicab-like display of total costs.

Adoption of the router is “crucially hinged on moving away from a conventional user interface,” Wroclawski noted. A PC-based interface such as Microsoft’s Pocket PC won’t do the job: “It’s much better if you can talk to the device, and it can talk to you.”

Additionally, privacy is a big deal. “We’re building a little box that follows you and knows what you are doing.”

Big Worries for the Big Guns?

So how, exactly, would service providers like to play with the personal router?

The MIT group is investigating various payment models and wants to be open to “business models that we have never heard of,” Wroclawski said.

One new model is a “bandwidth management organization,” which would package together services for you at steady prices. (“People love flat rates,” Wroclawski commented.)

While Wroclawski hopes the personal router will let a thousand local services flourish, its success may depend on the handful of existing national players.

“I spend a lot of time talking to folks who spent $4 billon on 3G [wireless] spectrum and are worried about how they can get their money back,” Wroclawski said. “Companies, such as Verizon, might want to be bandwidth-management organizations. On the other hand, the personal router is also deeply threatening to them.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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