If the past week is any indication, Americans may soon enter the era of always-on, always-available Internet. While the full rollout of new broadband technologies may be two or three years away, the nation is closer to catching up with its access-rich Asian counterparts than ever before.
The big news, of course, was the Federal Communication Commission's Election Day decision to open the unused white-space portions of the electromagnetic spectrum between television channels for a national broadband Wi-Fi system. At the urging of Google and other technology companies, the system will be open to unlicensed devices that pass FCC muster.
Adding Satellite WiMAX
The lack of licensing control and fees, the technology companies argue, will spur innovation. In addition, the remarkable reach of the low-frequency television signals will mean less expensive infrastructure capable of reaching deep into the nation's now-underserved rural areas.
"Making access cheaper and more available in more places is probably the most important thing we can do," said Larry Page, cofounder and president of products for Google. He was speaking at the Wireless Communications Association International (WCAI) conference in San Jose, Calif.
In an address earlier in the day to the WCAI, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said he plans to propose new rules to expand the availability of high-speed mobile broadband service from satellites.
The proposal will attempt to strike a balance between mobile broadband and existing satellite services licensed under the Wireless Communications Services (WCS) system. As with the white-space development, the FCC will be looking closely at ways to minimize or prevent interference with existing services.
Greg Sterling, founding principal at Sterling Market Intelligence, agreed with Page about the significance of the development.
"I think the FCC approval of use of white space does have the potential to be a game-changer," Sterling said. "Part of that is because there are no 'license fees' for use of the spectrum, so services or devices with access built in (e.g., Amazon's kindle) could be offered at reduced cost vs conventional ISP or wireless subscriber fees."
"But more significantly," Sterling continued, "it suggests that within perhaps a decade or less connectivity will be pervasive. That makes all sorts of new devices and scenarios possible."
Some of the devices, Sterling suggested, might be the types of "smart appliances" that Microsoft has been talking about for years, such as refrigerators connected to the Internet. Combined with RFID technology and weight-sensing shelves, such fridges could keep a running inventory of food on hand and either print out shopping lists of needed items or order them directly from a grocery delivery service.
Other types of devices might take advantage of constant connectivity to provide streaming or frequently updated information (think electronic newspapers on a television screen or embedded in the kitchen counter, or a Pandora stereo).
"The availability of inexpensive or free mobile/wireless Internet access," Sterling said, "will potentially drive huge innovation in consumer products, but also communications as well. There will also likely be price pressure on traditional telcos and cable companies at some point, depending on what transpires."