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Take-Out Computing
Wireless communication provides a desktop
anytime, anywhere

(From California Business magazine)

By N. T. Amur

California Business magazine Winter 94 issue

Once again California has become the launch pad of emerging technologies. Last November, an armada of California hardware and software companies, over 760, descended on Las Vegas for the annual Comdex trade show to show off their wares.

The hottest new technology? The new wireless communications. It promises computing and communication anytime, anywhere, and it'll change the way America works. And, The Golden State is becoming quickly the battleground for a fierce fight among the industry's titans, pitting one camp against the other-Specialized Radio Messaging (SMR) companies that have been providing two-way radio service to taxicabs, trucks, etc. on the one side, and cellular phone companies on the other. Particularly, the cellular companies feel squeezed, because they fear the SMR companies might go after the prized cellular voice markets also. Nevertheless, they all want California's juicy market as soon as possible, and to get it, they are throwing lots of money at it.

Some of the money will go toward new cell sites, and toward upgrading the existing systems by adding new equipment, plus some on-site retrofit engineering work. Estimates put the nationwide deployment cost from $500 million to $1 billion, for one system alone. The possiblity of up to $300 million of this money actually ending up here, is enough to make one's juices flow. Cellular transmission antenna are everywhere

Already, two California firms darted out of the gate to sell strategic infrastructure-level services and hardware. Sun Microsystems, Mountain View, through its SunConnect and SunNetworks divisions, will bring system management technology to the networks. Retix, Santa Monica, demonstrated the industry's first Mobile-Data Intermediate System. This device will become an integral part of the existing infrastructure, so different software can talk to each other.

But, considering what lies ahead, the infrastructure work is small potatoes compared to the market that'll burst open within the next several years. According to McCaw Cellular, The Flying Dutchman of the cellular markets, as many as 110 million subscribers could end up on various systems. This huge market got the attention of sleepy network providers, as well. Nextel jumped to the top (some say it really went over the top) when it acquired $1.8 billion worth of radio rights from Motorola last November. The deal will give Nextel 2500 licenses in California and 20 other states. The company also won crucial federal approval to offer digital voice and data services using its new licenses.

Whichever wireless system wins this hot race for digital dollars, California companies stand to benefit handsomely. Rockwell International, Newport Beach, and PCSI, San Diego, design and manufacture the heart of the cellular modems-the chipsets. PCSI also manufactures cellular-ready modems. Likewise, Intel, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale-based Air Communications and Navigation Technologies, and other California firms announced their own cellular line-up.

The increasing mobility of workers, and parallel to that, the explosive growth of markets for small computers, such as notebooks, laptops, palmtops, and personal digital assistants (PDA) spreading faster than the California wild fires, feed the frenzy for the wireless market. Here again, some of the largest manufacturers of these products call California home. ATT's Eo, Mountain View, Irvine-based AST, Hewlett-Packard, Santa Clara, Cupertino-based Apple, expect to sell annually over 3.6 million units of these hot new products by 1997. Add to that the existing 120 million computers, the market for wireless communications will be the largest ever in the history of computing for any singular product.

This is just fine with businesses, and people who always need to stay in touch with others to make a living. Oh, they know the ordeal. Until recently, exchanging data through wires was a bit more challenging than trying to shove a basketball through a tiny tube. Enter the slick American ingenuity: instead of trying to push the big ball as one piece, break it up into a bunch of little pingpong-size balls, and then pass it through the tube; reassemble it back into a basketball as it comes out the other end.

Now, in one way or another, nearly all wireless, as well as most land-based transmissions, use this strategy for telecommunications. Similarly, wireless modems, attached to computers, break down digital data into many small segments, packets, and send them along the available channels. The receiving modems put them all back together, and pass on the complete file to the communication software.

A new network, Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), unveiled by McCaw Cellular, the largest cellular phone service provider and a part of ATT, uses this same technology, but with a twist. It takes advantage of its existing voice cellular network idle capacity to send packetized digital data. This new system is picking up steam fast. All major cellular carriers like PacTel, GTE and Ameritech, plus IBM formed a CDPD consortium, and pledged their full participation. American Airlines and UPS became CDPD's first customers. San Francisco and San Jose will become the first cities to go on-line.

RAM Mobile Data, a limited partnership between RAM Broadcasting and BellSouth, leads the pack with the widest coverage which includes San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, and 6,300 other cities and towns. While this system is also cellular, but unlike CDPD, it only transmits packetized digital data-it does not handle voice. In addition to RAM, ARDIS, a partnership between IBM and Motorola, also provides packetized data transmission service using cellular radio links. However, in the long run, CDPD should cost less than the other networks since it leverages idle capacity, transmits at higher speeds, and will require relatively inexpensive additional infrastructure modifications to the existing cellular networks.

Meanwhile, all of this spells some relief for California's ailing economy. But, will the wireless market explosion and the stellar growth of computing technology actually light the State's fuse and propel it into the next century as the prosperous leader of the brave new high-tech world? The jury will be out on that for awhile.

Contributing Editor N. T. Amur provides professional marketing consulting, public relations, advertising and communications services through Corsys in West Garden Grove, CA. You can reach him at 714-892-7037.


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