News

Wireless Eight-Oh-Two-Dot-Eleven. Say What?

2/09/2003 7:00 PM Eastern

Valentine's Day week seems a good time for a break from the translatables of "the digital TV transition," which even the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission recently acknowledged as a "tortured path."

Happily, the "current events" list for technology always contains something worth examining. Wireless, for example. If my e-mailbox is any indication, wireless has stirred the curiosity of lots of people. WiFi, the 802.11s, Bluetooth — and that's the short list.

Wireless matters because it's on an innovation streak. It is unmistakably winding its way into consumer gadgetry. Manufacturers hope it gets as crazy as digital cameras and DVD players.

On the other side of the equation, wireless access points — where you can "plug in" to bandwidth with an antenna card for the laptop — seem to be cropping up everywhere. (Is it just me, or is it half-tempting to look down at your shirt when passing these places, to see if any bits are piling up on the fabric, like invisible digital lint?)

Half the headlines

Wireless was shouldered comfortably against HDTV headlines at the two events that open every new technology year: the Consumer Electronics Show, and, a week later, the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' annual Conference on Emerging Technologies. (Best tech groaner joke from ET: The description of wireless as "untwisted shielded air.")

At CES, the wireless gadgetry included a portable color-TV display, with noticeably rich picture quality. It didn't take much to imagine how great it would be to dump a few episodes of Charlie Rose
onto such a device, to watch on the plane.

Technical dissertations on wireless techniques easily filled a half-day of ET's two-day treasure trove this year.

One presentation discussed a chip that lets your cell phone act as your home phone — like when somebody misplaces the cordless, which is ringing, but you can't find it.

It also allows for remote-control command downloads into a Bluetooth-equipped phone, so the phone could act as a backup remote control — like when it gets wedged between the magazines and the cushions. The dynamic duo of high-bandwidth wireless and tighter compression for digital video are mostly what's driving the hopes — and fears — about wireless.

Speed vs. Distance

In general, wireless talk has two benchmarks: speed and distance. It follows that tradeoffs exist: Speed eats distance.

It helps to enter into discussions of wireless knowing the links between bandwidth, throughput speeds and compression rates. Compressed digital video pictures generally chew up about 3.75 Megabits per second for "standard definition" TV, like what's sold in a digital-cable package. Advanced compression techniques on the near horizon pinch that to 1 Mbps.

And now, the wireless types: There's Bluetooth, which does about 1 Mbps in the 2.4 Gigahertz spectrum, and is strong against interference from the microwave or the cordless phone (both of which use the same spectral area) because it slices itself up into little pieces that can hop around 1,600 times per second, on 79 different channels. It was designed for short-range use — around 33 feet, tops. (For now.)

"WiFi" refers to the variations on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' 802.11 standard, which carries nearly as many one-letter suffixes (a, b, and g) as "on-demand" has one-letter prefixes. There's 802.11a, which runs between 6 Mbps and 54 Mbps on eight to 12 channels in the 5-GHz zone, and can reach about 66 feet.

And there's 802.11b, which runs between 2 Mbps and 11 Mbps on three channels in the 2.4 GHz range, with around a 330-foot max; technologists submit that it's maybe not so good at ignoring the interruptions from the microwave. 802.11g offers speeds up to 54 Mbps, also in the 2.4 GHz zone, but with assorted types of modulation to fend off interference.

The cable angle in all of this is the notion of a "residential gateway," outfitted with high-bandwidth wireless spigots. Cable's bandwidth gusher is connected to a wireless gusher, which slakes the thirstier and thirstier fleet of consumer gizmos.

If you've walked into a gym lately, it's easier to muse about where wireless is going.

Going to the gym these days often means entering a room full of sweaty people — yet the place is strangely silent, absent the whirring of the equipment. (For those a little late on the New Year's resolutions, it's because their ears are plugged into their MP3 players.)

Adding more ways to containerize entertainment just gives us more places to retreat into our own geekospheres — our own digital stuff.

That's probably fine, if it's balanced with being a contributing human. And if nothing else, it means we're all about to see a lot more of the tops of each other's heads — bent over wireless devices.

Questions? Suggestions? Write to Leslie Ellis at ellis299@aol.com.