Product Releases

Why Can’t We All Get Connected

Fri, 01/13/2006 - 6:37am
Andrea Joest, Managing Editor
Hello everyone. It’s Andrea, WD&D’s managing editor and Ern’s editorial regulator (at least that’s what he calls me). After a recent conversation Ern and I had about WiMAX and other contenders in the wireless communications arena, he quickly recognized the opportunity to slack off for a bit and put my brain to work. So this month, it’s my turn to talk.

In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve gotten a whirlwind course in wireless technologies. While working to present them to WD&D’s audience in a logical and informative way, I have also done my best to understand what they will do for me, as an end-user. This has proven challenging, as I have a non-technical background. But here I am, and I’ve learned what’s become a second language to me as I attempt to untangle and understand the elaborate web of capabilities that wireless technologies can offer.

In considering the many communications standards, one in particular has piqued my interest because it seems to have the potential to advance the end-user experience more than most others. That technology is WiMAX. Now, hearing about most of the high-level wireless technologies I cover in this publication is about as enticing to my friends and family as watching paint dry. So I know I’ve hit on a good one when they not only have heard of, but actually have opinions on, WiMAX.

And why are they so interested and excited? Because from a consumer’s perspective, WiMAX seems to be a one-size-fits-all wireless data (and perhaps voice) solution, as opposed to the numerous industry-/application-specific or geographically-limited technologies we have today.

WiMAX holds the promise of connecting people in rural areas around the world who would otherwise be unreachable by conventional last-mile approaches. Its proponents claim that it can provide continual communication access for people on the go, allowing them to stay connected as they move from one area to the next, on foot or in various terrestrial vehicles. Eventually, our cell phones and PDAs might be WiMAX-enabled, which could to lead to more reliable, lower-cost connections that can reach farther than CDMA or GSM.

That said, in a world where staying connected is a necessity, it is ironic that the vendors, service providers and manufacturers of this industry have apparently become so disconnected from the consumer. All of these groups seek the goal of living and working in a completely wireless world, but there appears to be a communication gap. My frustration, and the frustration of others that I talk to, lies in the fact that there are so many connectivity options available to us today, that I feel like I need to hire a “wireless consultant” just to explain it all and make a recommendation. Even though we live in a country where freedom of choice is a principle we hold so dear, this is one decision we would probably prefer to have made for us.

Although the WiMAX Forum, as I understand it, strives for interoperability among its vendors, WiMAX is just one standard. Whether it will become the prevailing standard several years down the road remains to be seen. And part of the reason that this may take so long is because there’s just too much competition. After all, it took years for consumers to choose between VHS and Beta — and those were just two standards. We don’t seem to be learning too quickly. And it’s not just a plethora of communications options that consumers have to contend with. Twenty-first century innovations across the technology board reek of interoperability issues. There are, for example, fundamental incompatibilities in the various music downloading services available to consumers. In fact, mainstream media is even attempting to untangle the mess. Just the other day, I read an article in TIME discussing the pros and cons of different online music stores. The attributes of each were so widely varied that I was hard-pressed to pick out one that wouldn’t give me a headache. My solution? I don’t download music. Get my point?

Right now, we, as consumers, are inundated with so many wireless standards and technologies to choose from that we just don’t know where to turn: CDMA, GSM, WiMAX, Wi-Fi, Ev-DO. Gaining even a low-level understanding of these standards, and the advantages and disadvantages of each, takes much more time than the average, or even extremely interested consumer has available. Even those of us who are fairly entrenched in the industry get confused — which has to make you wonder how the average consumer feels. What I want is simple: I want to access the Internet from anywhere in the world. I want to be able to make calls, and send and receive data, wherever, whenever, to whomever, without worrying about dropped calls or a bad connection. And I want to do this all for a reasonable price. I’d like services that are bundled, so I don’t have to worry about dealing with many different companies. I want what works, and I don’t particularly care who offers it. Finally, I want to see the companies that are driving the race for pervasive connectivity come up with this stuff before it becomes an issue for consumers. The best technology is the kind we as consumers don’t have to think about — the kind that simply exists.

Do I think that WiMAX can eventually offer all of this? Probably. But if consumers can’t find it among this baffling mess of standards and capabilities and applications, what good is it? It seems to me that if wireless companies would try to keep one step ahead of consumers’ expectations, instead of in front of each other, superior technology and more satisfied consumers would result.


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