It happened sooner than I thought it would: the advent of portable high-speed Internet connectivity to a computer near you. Verizon Wireless should take a bow for making this possible because it’s now up and running in the greater Columbia area. Let’s now sit back and see how Verizon’s competitors respond to this exciting challenge.
The other day CBT editor David Reed showed me the latest peripheral attached to his laptop computer. This plug-in, which is no larger than your thumb, contains the “works” that will send and receive data via Verizon’s nearest cell phone tower, equipped with what the telecom industry calls 3G technology.
The speeds are pretty incredible, approaching the level of a T-1 line or 1.5 megabytes per second, which is way out of the park compared with the antique low-speed dial-up connections some computer users are still saddled with. These high-speed connections are so rapid that they will allow mobile computer users in the field to watch and download audio and video and zap incredible amounts of data from here to there.
Right there in his CBT office, Reed can connect effortlessly to his choice of thousands of Internet audio streams coming from anywhere in the world, some of them delivered in flawless stereo that sounds better than your average local FM station. Almost as effortlessly, Reed can call up live video streams and watch this new version of television on his laptop computer.
I bring this up while considering Missouri’s just-enacted legislation that later this summer will remove municipality franchise authority over cable television while at the same time allowing wire-line telephone companies such as CenturyTel to introduce new technologies that will compete with cable TV.
The overlap is considerable among the three delivery streams now in play here—telephone, cable and cellular. CenturyTel owns the classic network of copper telephone circuits to which they’ve added DSL and eventually video à la cable TV. MediaCom and Charter began with cable TV but now include telephone and high-speed Internet service through their network of coaxial cables. Then there are the cellular telephone phone companies. Cingular, Sprint and Verizon are the major stakeholders in the Columbia area, and these are the operators we should make it a point to watch closely because what they all will soon be offering is truly mobile.
I’ve watched with interest over the years while technologists have fiddled with ways to make high-speed computing via the Internet truly portable. We began with an assortment of WiFi “hotspots” where users can go online in locales ranging from the confines of a coffee house to the whole campus of the University of Missouri. Investors have floated the idea of using a vacated band of frequencies with dubious robustness to establish Internet connectivity while others have translated the WiFi concept into something called WiMax, which has more range and reliability.
Of course the “portable” Internet rules out CenturyTel and the two cable companies, so for those of us who are inveterate—and peripatetic—computer users, the field to watch is the cellular and what they are doing with their latest iteration of 3G equipment.
One can understand the frustration of municipalities such as the City of Columbia having lost franchise and regulatory authority over cable TV while dealing with the ongoing negotiating impasse over various issues, including highly coveted local channels. On the other hand, the potential for true high-speed Internet portability augers well for the day when the city’s own Web site will include dozens of locally based video streams, including my own personal Holy Grail: the ability to watch City Council meetings and other proceedings on my laptop computer anywhere.
Let me boldly suggest that 10 years from now there won’t be much need for telephone and cable connections to your home or office because everything will be wireless. What disenfranchised governments should from now on be paying attention to is their own Internet communications systems, including their Web sites and the bill of fare that’s available. As I’ve cautioned before, “never say never” when it comes to what the worlds’ inventors, investors and innovators are up to.