Internet Unplugged

Mobile Internet promises to get us on-line all the time

P> As separate strides have been made in mobile communications and the Internet over the past year, it was fated that the two would converge. Commercial and government groups are developing protocols, setting standards and devising products that will enable people to use the Internet while on the go.


Using the Internet for mobile communicating and research is something that will become a reality in 1996, said Charles Perkins, an IBM researcher based in Hawthorne, N.Y., who specializes in this area. "The Internet has trillions of bytes of data that can be placed at your service," Perkins said. "Mobilizing that data will make life easier."

Perkins said researchers are now at a point where such technology is ready to market. But it hasn't been a simple process. Because Internet users find each other through their Internet protocol addresses, the computers get confused if the location is moved. For mobile Internet, then, a two-step process must be used: The data or message must first go through a "home agent" computer in the place where the machine usually is, and then the information is sent on to the remote location through a variety of means -- satellite, devices called "information stations" or even personal communications services networks.

The result, said Perkins, is seamless communication.

One of the more ambitious mobile Internet projects is now being conducted by Dr. Tomasz Imielinski and Dr. D.R. Badrinath at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.

Called "Dataman," their system would let portable computer users access the Internet from virtually anywhere -- an airport, a shopping mall, a car. Imielinski said he expects people to use wireless Internet as a way to manage information.

For example, someone could find out where taxicabs are in a certain area, or locate the nearest police station.

There are many possibilities. "You will say you're hungry and the computer will tell you where the nearest pizza place is," Imielinski said.

Information stations -- essentially transmitters -- would be placed at certain locations, the way automated teller machines are spread throughout a city.

Each would serve as a wireless kiosk that would be able to process the information.

There is now a prototype of the system, but Imielinski said he is several years away from introducing it to the mainstream.

The Rutgers professors have received a $1.6 million grant from the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency and $600,000 from the National Science Foundation to help their work on the Dataman project.

"It may look like science fiction, but it is possible," said Imielinski.

Separately, ARPA has launched a research effort called the Global Mobile InfoSystems program, or GloMo.

"The goal is that results from this program and other federally funded initiatives be integrated into commercial products, which can then be integrated into the next generation systems," according to ARPA's World Wide Web site (http://www.ito.arpa.mil/researchareas/defense_information_enterprise_technologies/global_mobile_infosystems.html).

The Internet, satellite systems and personal digital assistants are expected to be part of the wireless mobile environment.

The government wants to use mobile technology because networks with a fixed base station, such as cellular, don't work well in emergency situations where networks need to be set up instantly.

Specifically, ARPA hopes mobility will help it in a project to digitize the battlefield. Now, lower level commanders use a "push-to-talk" radio, similar to the kind used in World War II.

The future digital battlefield will have a mix of terrestrial and space-based communications to handle voice, data and imagery, ARPA said.

While some of these projects may only be in development stages, other less complicated mobile Internet systems are beginning to show up in the commercial market.

Sony has already started to roll out products as part of its new subsidiary, Sony Personal Information Co., San Jose, Calif., which develops mobile communications offerings.

One such product is Sony's Magic Link personal communicator, which includes access to Vienna, Va.-based America Online, e-mail and travel information.

Magic Link uses a technology developed by Active Paper, Austin, Texas, that allows wireless access to the Internet e-mail system. "Users have typically been bound to the desktop for all their Internet communication needs," said David King, CEO of Active Paper. "[Our] products get Internet connectivity off the desktop and into the hands of mobile consumers."

Now that the technology is here, it is a question of how soon customers will want it and what they will use it for.

"We will see a gradual migration of Internet users to wireless," predicted Imielinski.

So far, potential customers like the idea of getting up-to-the-minute information, such as stock quotes, no matter where they are. People also like the ability to get directions from a combination of Internet information and Global Positioning System technology while they are in their car.

Eventually, said Imielinski, information could be downloaded by satellite as often as needed, with the most sought after data broadcast most frequently. "You could compare it to a TV guide," he said.

Part of the attraction will be the price. Perkins said wireless Internet products could eventually be made as cheaply as television remote controls.

Mobile Internet will help people in the way that other forms of mobility, such as cars and highways, have contributed to our society, he said. "It's there to be used, like the roads."

There are concerns, however, namely privacy and security. It is easier for someone to steal information by tapping into the same frequency from a car in the next lane than breaking into a desktop account.

The Dataman system somewhat ominously depends on knowing where the user is to give him information, such as the location of the nearest hospital.

And do people really want to be tracked down no matter where they are and do they want the ability to work 24 hours a day? Imielinski said he has a colleague who half-jokes about "the terror of anytime, anyplace."


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