Discover Roundtable: Can We Make Wireless Work?

Cell-phone coverage in the United States may be the worst in the world, and data transmission is even more troubling. Yet insiders insist there's hope

By Alyson AlianoSep 1, 2003 5:00 AM


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This year Discover invited a panel of distinguished guests to discuss the future of wireless technology at an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers symposium in San Francisco. Eric Haseltine moderated the discussion

1. Peter Shinyeda Corporate Vice President, Motorola

2.Marisa Viveros Director, Worldwide Wireless e-business, IBM Global Services

3.Robert Lucky Former Corporate Vice President, Applied Research, Telcordia Technologies

4.Eric Haseltine Former Head of Research, Walt Disney Imagineering

5.James KardachPrincipal Engineer, Intel Mobile Products Group

6.Cynthia ChristyChief Operating Officer, Lucent Technologies' Mobility SolutionsGroup

7.Greg JoswiakVice President, Hardware Product Marketing, Apple

8.Donna Dubinsky Cofounder and Chief Executive Officer, Handspring

ERIC HASELTINE: When I think about the wireless devices in my life, the first thing that pops into my mind is: Why don't they work better? Let's go around the table. Donna, can you answer my complaint?

DONNA DUBINSKY: I think the biggest problem we've got is getting data—the Internet, pictures—to work over networks designed for voice. You have to configure things, set up e-mail, make sure it's connecting, find the calendar. Manufacturers need to figure out how to make that stuff easy.

Peter Shinyeda


GREG JOSWIAK: Well, parts of wireless work great. The success of 802.11 [wireless local-area networks like the T-Mobile "hot spots" in Starbucks coffee shops] shows what can happen when you start by identifying the problem—portable-computer users want to be wireless—and then build a technology around it.

JAMES KARDACH: I'll tell a story to show why we're still in trouble. I have a friend who bought a wireless setup for his house because he has a desktop computer at home and a notebook he brings home from the office. He wanted to transfer photographs from his notebook to the desktop. But he couldn't get the little network device to work, so he called me up and said, "Jim, why don't you come over? I'll give you a beer." The first thing I realized was that there were five access points near his house and all of them were operating under the same name—the manufacturer's name—and all of them were on Channel 6. That's the way the software sets it up. He couldn't connect to his network, because he was sitting on his neighbor's network. That's a common issue. We have to stop designing technologies like 802.11 that are built for engineers. The broader community needs to be able to use them.

ROBERT LUCKY: You know it's made by engineers when it's called 802.11. Only engineers would pick a name like that!

HASELTINE: Yes, but I was driving up this morning from southern California, and about 80 percent of the time I couldn't get on the network with my cell phone. When I could get on a base station, the transmission didn't last long. What's wrong with this picture?

LUCKY: Cellular phone stuff is a done deal. What I'm interested in building up is broadband wireless access. Right now, people have DSL or cable modems, and they're wondering, "Why can't we do this wirelessly?" Why can't we break through the barrier of about a megabit that we face right now—go to 10, maybe even 100? The theory is there—you could do this wirelessly. As George Gilder said, there is as much bandwidth in the air as there is in fiber optics.

Marisa Viveros

HASELTINE: I wasn't very successful in fixing the blame for my crummy cellular phone service on Bob, so I'm going to turn to Peter, who's from Motorola. If anyone's to blame . . .

PETER SHINYEDA: I think it could be improved, but wireless cellular has served the industry and the consumer very well. It's low-cost. You can call anywhere from any place. The challenge is what Donna brought up: going from voice to data and managing content—data and video. Someday we will have wireless visual communication. Humans communicate on a visual level, so it's coming. But right now there's an awful lot of competing technology, and we are confusing the consumer.


CYNTHIA CHRISTY: We can talk about technology, but the focus must be on reliability, quality of service, and value to the consumer. There has to be some personal utility—things that people have a high willingness to pay for.

LUCKY: I think we need some kind of glue that holds everything together, that allows me to take my laptop with me and not have to log in everywhere I go, and I don't have to belong to everything. We're getting all these hot spots from 802.11 that are kind of melding, but there's nothing that ties them all together yet.

CHRISTY: But I think that's where 3G [third-generation wireless standard] plays in—I think there is a marriage. The telecom and computing industries are converging, and 3G and 802.11 are working together now. Each has different target markets and applications, but there is room for both technologies.

LUCKY: I'm going to be the bad guy here. I don't think there's that much need for 3G. I don't need my laptop when I'm walking down a street. Where do I need my laptop? I need it at the hotels, at the airports. In those sorts of locations, 802.11 coverage is sufficient, and the difference in price between 802.11 and 3G is enormous.

Robert Lucky

HASELTINE: I'd like to return to the original question, because we are debating wireless for a reason, which is: It doesn't work. I have 802.11, but in some parts of my house, it doesn't work. In other parts, I pick up my neighbor's network. It interferes with my 2.4-gig wireless phone, with my Bluetooth, Home RF, with all of this stuff. The great strength of it, of course, is that it's unlicensed. It's like the Oklahoma land rush, and anybody can do what he wants. But the bad part is that everything is tripping over everything else, and the basic technology just doesn't work that well.

KARDACH: Well, I think this is just the beginning of a curve. The technology is maturing, and we're trying to figure out if we can make money doing hot spots. At the moment different cultures are clashing. In the computer market, everyone has come to expect things for free. We just got over the shock of paying $25 a month for an Internet service provider when we found out we'd have to pay $40 a month for a cell phone. Now we're thinking, "Gee, I'm in this hotel. Wouldn't it be nice to use this 11-megabits-per-second local-area network, but it's going to cost $8 an hour."

LUCKY: A lot of people here are focusing on the business model and how to make money. I'm thinking, Hey, I'm retired. I want this for free! I don't care if someone else makes any money on this. I had a friend who was sitting in Starbucks and he decided to sign up for the Starbucks 802.11 access. But while he was checking into it, he found there were three free hot spots right there that he could use. There are a lot of dedicated volunteers around this country setting up free hot spots.

HASELTINE: Do we see a grassroots network emerging with 802.11 that's an echo of the original Internet?

KARDACH: I think a lot of people providing hot-spot access are unknowing contributors. They bought an access point and set it up, but they don't understand the technology. They don't know their stuff is being broadcast over the neighborhood and that anyone can connect to it.

Eric Haseltine

JOSWIAK: Some people don't care, but others are making a concerted effort to share the access to 802.11.

LUCKY: Exactly.

HASELTINE: The great mathematician George Polya once said that when you are confronted with a hard problem that you can't solve, there's another problem that you can't solve that's easier, so go fix that first. It seems that's been the approach with wireless—solve the easier problem. We have not been able to solve the problems of ubiquitous, reliable wireless connectivity—for voice or data. As the next wave of technology hits us, and then the next wave, are we doomed? Will each new technology not work very well?

LUCKY: Things always get better, and they're never as good as you want them to be. Right now there's an argument raging back and forth between economists and engineers about how to assign and value the spectrum that wireless systems use. The engineers are saying you should make this a commons, where people can do their own thing, as you can with the 802.11 frequency now, but the economists are saying, no, you've got to value this as property. The FCC just issued the Spectrum Policy Task Force Report that advocated a lot more openness in using the spectrum. We don't know what's going to happen. Will we invent our way out of it and figure out how to use this common space so that we all benefit from it? Think of the classic tragedy of the commons in a village, where everybody brings his own cow or sheep, and they eat all the grass until there's nothing left. Some wireless theorists say maybe every cow has to bring its own grass.


James Kardach

KARDACH: I don't think we're doomed at all. In Europe, they focused all their energy on a single standard, but in the United States we now have around three or four cellular standards. At first we deployed our cellular network on a single standard, and that worked a lot better than what we have now.

MARISA VIVEROS: But right now the standards are made by technology people, and the specs for the standards are inches thick. So when products are implemented, the engineers can only implement half the features in the specs.

SHINYEDA: In order for wireless technology to take hold, we've got to think about the end user, the consumer, not the technical specification. For example, take a simple thing like file format and screen size: When you send out a Multimedia Messaging Service message, it's a heck of a chore to pick up a message from another phone because screen sizes are all different. Some degree of standardization has to happen. So far it hasn't because we've all been chasing technology.

HASELTINE: I think we're always doomed whenever things are confusing. And the market rarely rewards confusion. That's what I see in this wide-area space. No one knows what standards are happening, when they're happening. How do you play in those standards, what kind of device would you use, how much is it going to cost, and ultimately, of course, what is it going to do for me?

VIVEROS: I think it is confusing in the United States, but if you go to Europe, or you go to Japan, the way they use wireless is totally different than the way we do because they have high-quality services. Their wireless phones work. We have too many standards.

CHRISTY: Here's the issue: Consumers don't care about standards or infrastructure. They want reliable coverage, dependable devices, and value from the services they pay for every month.

Cynthia Christy

HASELTINE: Do you think it's simple for a customer to understand how to get data on a phone right now?

CHRISTY: No. It's a brand-new technology. The telecom folks selling data are having a very difficult time articulating its value to consumers.

KARDACH: Even though 3G is made up of multiple standards kind of stuck together, it is the area where everyone is going to focus on the same technology.

CHRISTY: That's not true. Spread-spectrum techniques are different around the world.


DUBINSKY: I think the United States probably has the worst coverage in the world. You go to Europe and the coverage is awesome! Just a quick story: When we were designing our next-generation product, our product manager from Europe happened to be in the office, and we were all looking at a prototype. It's got this little light that lights up green or red, depending on whether you're in coverage or not. He said: "We don't need that. We're always in coverage."

HASELTINE: Why does it work better in Europe?

DUBINSKY: Two reasons. One is that the United States is big and Europe is not. The physical scale of this country is immense, and there's the cost of building that out. The second is that having several separate national standards here, where Europe has one, retarded our ability to get coverage. We had to build multiple redundant technologies.

CHRISTY: I think that consumers have benefited from the competition.

DUBINSKY: I'd agree.

CHRISTY: You can't beat the U.S. price plans anywhere in the world.

KARDACH: But there's something fascinating in what Donna said. If we took all the investment that went into all those towers and all those radios and we used one standard, we would have much better coverage.

Greg Joswiak

LUCKY: But there's a trade-off between innovation and standardization. I think it's good to have a little anarchy. When you try to heavy-handedly standardize everything, you don't get the experimentation that you need. Don't crush it out. Let it percolate a little and see what happens.

HASELTINE: As we wrap up, give me a killer app.

KARDACH: I think that in the future you may be sitting on an airplane for 13 hours, typing in e-mail, wanting to print, but you can't do those things because you're not connected. When you get off that plane, your wireless device will tell you what services are available nearby. It will say: "Hey, there is an 802.11 network that's 11 megabits per second. It costs $10 an hour. And over here there are printing services at $3 a page."

VIVEROS: But I think that paper will soon be passé. My favorite futuristic application is the ability to transmit biological information wirelessly. We've already made shirts embedded with sensors that detect biological signals. Doctors will be able to capture those signals and help not just those who are sick but everyone. We'll be able to improve and extend human life.

LUCKY: One issue that's captured my attention is the changing sociology of classrooms. This is the reverse of a killer app. Right now students are obviously connecting during lectures, and professors I talk to don't know how to cope with that. Students are sitting in class, wirelessly connected, and they aren't listening.

JOSWIAK: Wireless, connected, portable computers are the future of technology in schools. Before 802.11, about 5 percent of computers sold to schools were notebooks—now for Apple it's about 40 percent. Wireless is changing the way we teach and learn. A mobile cart of iBooks with AirPort [Apple's wireless technology that operates on 802.11] gets wheeled in, and teachers pass them out to every student in the class. Because they all have wireless capability, they're able to connect instantly to the Internet and to each other. Because the computers and the network come to the classroom, they can be used more readily to teach core subjects like math, science, and English instead of having kids shuffling in and out of a computer lab. This just wasn't possible before because schools couldn't afford this one-to-one ratio. This changes everything.

Donna Dubinsky

CHRISTY: I've been out of town for three days. I have four kids. If you could tell me that for five bucks I could download a photograph of my kids, high-speed, on my laptop right this second, I'd pay for that, just to make sure they're safe. There has to be personal utility, personal security— things people have a high willingness to pay for.

KARDACH: Wonderful things are going to happen. Wireless will change our culture, and I think we've barely seen the beginning of it.

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