Whole World Is Waiting for Bandwidth

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Halfway through Sun Microsystems' surreal 7:30 a.m.
briefing, the sun itself trickled in across Lac Leman, just outside of the Geneva hotel
where we were assembled.

It was at just the moment when Sun executives declared that
"convergence" -- or, as one preferred to call it, "conversion" -- is
simply about voice and data carriage, and that video will have to wait until there is more
bandwidth.

Good morning!

As soon as he spoke, it dawned upon the man from Sun that
"bandwidth" was one of the things that had lured us to Geneva for Telecom '99,
subtitled "Convergence."

Although traditional telecommunications vendors were
fixated on "unified messaging" (data and voice interexchanged on dynamic new
networks), the next-generation purveyors were ready for video, too.

To be fair, elsewhere in the Sun domain, other visionaries
carried the video flag, but the early morning spielers certainly were on message about
voice and data.

The quadrennial Telecom gathering is the combined World
Cup/Olympics/Super Bowl/Grand Prix of global telecommunications trade shows. Visitors and
exhibitors alike need an athlete's endurance to survive the weeklong extravaganza, with
its eight massive exhibit halls, six-story "booths" and jingoistic pavilions,
all loaded with digital wonders to last us four more years.

The Sun prattlers acknowledged that bandwidth is less of a
barrier in the United States, where cable is widespread, but they seemed to intimate that
in Europe and Asia, bandwidth limitations may persist.

Satellites or wireless, anyone?

Indeed, at times, wireless appeared to the only carrier on
most of the 200,000 minds wandering through the Geneva Palexpo and environs. From new
Internet protocols to global satellite services, Telecom '99 was strewn with wireless
wonders. The glitziest product prototypes offered glimpses of what can be transmitted in
the new untethered environment -- bandwidth permitting, of course.

For example, as part of its "DoCoMo"
mobile-communications network, NTT Group (the Japanese telephone company's enterprise
spinoff) showcased an array of video-mobile phones. Built-in cameras capture still or
motion video and transmit it using MPEG-4 or W-CDMA (wideband) to a base station for
multimedia-network delivery.

The predictable prototypers -- Sony, Canon, Sharp,
Panasonic and their peers -- demonstrated "conceptual models" of these portable
screen-phones.

What works for video, of course, also works for wireless
Internet access, and there was plenty of competition on that front. The entrenched
Wireless Applications Protocol (an interface that strips out most of HTML graphics to
deliver Web content economically to a handheld screen) is gaining acceptance in Europe.

It has yet to reach North America, raising the prospect for
more Internet-access competition when it (or its cousin) does arrive here within a year.

Oracle took the wraps off its "Portal-to-Go"
technology, which lets carriers translate Web pages into formats that can be displayed on
mobile phones or handheld computers.

Meanwhile, satellite purveyors are stepping up their
Internet-access agendas. Gilat Satellite Networks, the fast-expanding Israeli vendor,
showed its interactive "Skystar" system, and Hughes Network Systems teased with
more details about its upcoming "Spaceway" project, starting with business-only
versions that are ready for launch.

And French-based SkyBridge is still on target for its
low-earth-orbiting satellite service, due for 2001 as a fast Internet-access alternative.

Telecom is a world in which nuggets of knowledge often
outweigh pearls of wisdom.

For example, "Bluetooth" had been one of those
mysteries of wireless connectivity. Predictions that 100 million devices will have
built-in "Bluetooth" capability by 2002 were meaningless.

But in Geneva, the plentiful prototypes and demonstrations
showed how Bluetooth is an open specification for "short-range cable-replacement
technology" -- in other words, getting rid of the wire between the earpiece and the
mobile-phone transceiver.

It also has interesting applications for wireless PC
connections within a home. (In fact, there's a big Bluetooth developers' conference in Los
Angeles the week before the Western Show.)

Speaking of wireless, in-home connectivity, Geneva was rife
with next-generation dreams. Motorola showcased its "AirLink" multiuser
cable-modem system, which, it says, "takes broadband Internet access to new heights
and new places" around the home or small office. AirLink combines the DOCSIS cable
modem with "HomeRF" technology to connect up to 10 devices for simultaneous
Internet access.

Elsewhere in its expansive two-story "booth,"
Motorola offered a peek at several of its multimedia and connectivity plans, which might
work their way into the U.S. cable environment along with Motorola's takeover of General
Instrument.

And that brings us back to bandwidth. Amid the erudite
and/or diplomatic presentations -- after all, the show is run by the International
Telecommunications Union, part of the United Nations -- it was clearly the bandwidth
makers, even more than the carriers, who are really in charge here.

More than AT&T's Michael Armstrong, Microsoft's Bill
Gates or France Telecom CEO Michel Bon (all of whom were among the stellar speakers),
Cisco president John Chambers was an omnipresent star of the show.

Moreover -- how convenient -- Chambers was also the
impresario running the Cisco-backed "NetAid.org" rock-concert fund-raiser, which
handily coincided with Telecom.

Cisco, Nortel and their fellow bandwidth creators are
making sure that Sun -- and maybe the sun, too -- will rise another day.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen started his Geneva jaunt
with a visit to the tiny museum that was once the home of venerated curmudgeon Voltaire.
What would
Candide's creator think about all of this bandwidth at his doorstep?

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