Technology

Wi-Fi's "Cauldron of Innovation"


Wi-Fi is about to go mainstream, says David Farber, professor of telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the industry's top networking experts. That's because this technology for broadband wireless networking (which uses the popular 802.11 standard) has reached a point where it's cheap and easy enough to deploy that it will soon be ubiquitous.

Farber should know. In his 49 years in computer science, he has seen many technological breakthroughs follow the same path. An Internet pioneer, he designed the first electronic switching system during 11 years at Bell Laboratories early in his career, and today he does research on high-speed networking.

He has also become an advocate for keeping technology open to competition and unrestrained by regulation. He spent a year as the chief technologist at the Federal Communications Commission and testified as an expert witness for the government during the Microsoft antitrust trial. He is perhaps best known in tech circles for maintaining an e-mail distribution list of articles and ideas that he calls "interesting people." It reaches as many as 20,000 people daily.

These days, Wi-Fi is frequently fodder for the list. Farber is a great fan of Wi-Fi, which he feels stands apart from other wireless technologies because it operates on unlicensed spectrum, which means that regulators and large telecommunications companies don't control it. That freedom has allowed for what he calls a "caldron of innovation" on the part of developers, which will lead to many more uses for Wi-Fi technology in homes and businesses.

With all this potential comes risk, however. Farber fully expects competing interests to try to inhibit the grass-roots innovation. While he says the warring between the big companies will be "fun to watch," he worries that regulators could be misled into thinking they need to step in -- and inadvertently stop innovation. Farber shared his thoughts with BusinessWeek Online Associate Editor Amey Stone in interviews that took place over several days via telephone and e-mail -- over a wireless network, of course. Following are edited excerpts of their discussion:

Q: How important is Wi-Fi as a technology?

A: It's very significant. This is something we talked about a long, long time ago -- the idea of being always connected to computers. You can get off an airplane and turn on your computer, and suddenly you're communicating -- all without a huge amount of regulatory overhead. That's creating a whole new generation of people who are using the technology and coming up with creative applications for it. So far, it's much more of a community thing, although businesses are starting to develop that will offer access and come up with new applications for the technology.

Q: How is Wi-Fi different from all the other wireless technologies that have been developed?

A: The biggest change is that it allows for a lot more creativity. For years, the use of wireless has been very controlled. You had companies that bought spectrum space, you had cell-phone companies that sold handsets, but there was very little opportunity to get the innovation that comes from getting a large number of people to work at finding different ways to use wireless technology.

Wi-Fi gives you that. You can create a network, design applications, and build a business without having to hire Washington lawyers to do it. For example, I'm currently designing a temperature-control system for my house using Wi-Fi. And I don't need to get a license to do it.

Q: Is Wi-Fi proliferating faster or slower than you expect?

A: It's at about the speed I expected. In the early days, it cost $300 to $500 for a Wi-Fi card. You had to be a hero to get the software working, and it was no fun to try and get the operating system to behave correctly. But over the last six months, it has developed so you can just pick it up and plug it in. As we say in the computer-science department, even arts and sciences students can use it. A year ago, you didn't dare offer it to them.

Now, new machines have Wi-Fi built in. Handhelds have it. Next year it will be in printers. Pretty soon no one will even care that it is there -- they'll just assume it's there. This is an expected path with new technology. It happens time and time again.

Q: Does Wi-Fi pose a risk to the incumbent wireless players who are investing in next-generation (3G) technology?

A: Carriers are going to have to face the fact that, at least in congested places, there are other ways of offering high-speed connections for data transfer than 3G. With Wi-Fi you can get higher speeds than you can get from 3G, although there are places where 3G works and Wi-Fi won't. Initially, Wi-Fi will temper the business case for 3G, but 3G does have applications.

For example, I don't believe anyone is going to put in a nationwide Wi-Fi network. There are better ways to do that. Wi-Fi works very well in a relatively dense population, but it's never going to cover a lonely back road. Ultimately, Wi-Fi may create more demand for 3G services since it will wet people's whistle. People will see that this stuff does work, and they will want more.

Q: Is there a risk that Wi-Fi could become more expensive?

A: I don't think it's ever going to be expensive unless someone changes the rules. You don't need anybody to make it work. There will be people who will come in and offer services, and if they are affordable and well-thought out, people will tend to use them. In this sense it's like the early days of the Internet.

Q: Could concerns about security hamper its spread?

A: Those are growing pains. In almost every maturing technology, there are growing pains. Today, [such] problems get solved pretty fast.

Q: Do you see any threats to your vision of Wi-Fi creating a "cauldron of innovation," as you put it?

A: We just need to make sure that people whose business would be helped by Wi-Fi not succeeding aren't allowed to change the rules. There are things you could do to turn off all this creativity. History suggests that there are probably already lobbyists working on killing the golden goose. But my reading right now is that those efforts probably will not succeed. Wi-Fi is a stampede that will be hard to stop.


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