Whole World Is Waiting for Bandwidth


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

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

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 werefixated on "unified messaging" (data and voice interexchanged on dynamic newnetworks), the next-generation purveyors were ready for video, too.

To be fair, elsewhere in the Sun domain, other visionariescarried the video flag, but the early morning spielers certainly were on message aboutvoice and data.

The quadrennial Telecom gathering is the combined WorldCup/Olympics/Super Bowl/Grand Prix of global telecommunications trade shows. Visitors andexhibitors alike need an athlete's endurance to survive the weeklong extravaganza, withits 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 abarrier in the United States, where cable is widespread, but they seemed to intimate thatin Europe and Asia, bandwidth limitations may persist.

Satellites or wireless, anyone?

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

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

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

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

It has yet to reach North America, raising the prospect formore 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 onmobile phones or handheld computers.

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

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

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

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

But in Geneva, the plentiful prototypes and demonstrationsshowed how Bluetooth is an open specification for "short-range cable-replacementtechnology" -- in other words, getting rid of the wire between the earpiece and themobile-phone transceiver.

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

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

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

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

More than AT&T's Michael Armstrong, Microsoft's BillGates 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 theimpresario running the Cisco-backed "NetAid.org" rock-concert fund-raiser, whichhandily coincided with Telecom.

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

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen started his Geneva jauntwith 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?