The world of communications is being revolutionised by wireless and broadband technologies. Just as computing has been governed by Moore’s Law, bandwidth has been following Gilder’s Law (doubling every 6-9 months, at 2-3 times the pace of the advances in semiconductors). Wireless technologies are freeing the individual and the desktop, and broadband is providing ever thicker pipes for data. Cellphones ensure reachability virtually anywhere on the planet. Connectivity to the Internet becomes better and higher-speed, and at decreasing costs, thanks to rapid advances in fibre optics.
On the LAN, we have moved from 10 Mbps to 100 Mpbs to 1 GigE (Gigabit Ethernet, at 1000 Mbps). The WAN backbones have been keeping pace thanks to optical technologies – there’s now a surfeit of fibre laid in most parts of the world. Little of it has been lit. This overcapacity has partly been responsible for the telecom implosion in the past year. The bottleneck has been in the “last mile connectivity” – from the kerb to the office (or home). Here, technologies like DSL, cable, fixed wireless are being used.
An emerging technology in this space is governed by the 802.11 (Ethernet) family of protocols. 802.11b (or WiFi as it is popularly known) and 802.11a operate at 11 Mbps and 54 Mbps, respectively. So far, they have been thought of more as solutions for Wireless LANs and competing with technologies like Bluetooth and HomeRF. But, as inevitably happens with disruptive technologies, the pace of innovation driving 802.11 is pushing it beyond what it was originally conceived for, driven by its use of “open spectrum” (unlicenced spectrum, in the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz bands).
Even as the world has been envisioning a future of 3G (with tens of billions of dollars having been paid for spectrum in some countries), the 802.11 protocols are capable of offering an alternative which may, with some help from governments, make it a excellent last-mile choice to bridge the gap between broadband LANs and the optical backbones.
Explains Kevin Werbach of Release 1.0 (Nov 2001 issue) in a report entitled “Open Spectrum: The Paradise of the Commons”:
Connectivity is a scarce resource. Building networks is difficult and expensive, something only a few companies can manage – telcos, cable operators, wireless carriers and satellite providers. Service providers control the fate of the Internet, as the gatekeepers to richer connections. The last mile into homes has become a broadband bottleneck, while high-speed wireless data services remain more wish than reality.
What if the scarcity and specificity of today’s bandwidth options were artificial? What if wide-area network (WAN) connectivity were like that in local-area networks (LANs): a hardware choice under the control of the end-user? What if connectivity were shared by all rather than provided by a few?
Here’s the concept in a nutshell: Instead of radio frequencies assigned exclusively to companies, spectrum would become a commons shared among users. Smart devices subject to rules ensuring that no one player could hog the airwaves would replace networks defined by governments and service providers. Bandwidth would be cheaper and more ubiquitous. Spectrum would be used more efficiently. Open spectrum cuts out the greatest expense of communications networks: transport infrastructure. The network is the endpoints; in the middle is just air.
This could be the foundation of creating high-speed community wireless networks, at very low-cost. Exactly what emerging markets need!