NSF Official: Wireless InternetStill In 'Exotic' Technology Phase

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NSF Official: Wireless Internet
Still In 'Exotic' Technology Phase

By John Makulowich
Senior Writer

Government programs likely to shape the future of wireless communications include efforts spearheaded by the Defense Advanced

Research Projects Agency and test beds in the global interoperability of the broadband network, experts said this week.

In a wide-ranging discussion on the shape of wireless to come - peppered with references to novel applications like body-net, body-LAN and wrist top - four representatives of federal agencies reviewed these and other efforts at a workshop sponsored by George Washington University in Washington.

Tom Kalil, senior director of the National Economic Council at the White House, outlined the Clinton administration's position on wireless technology and repeated its oft-quoted role as a catalyst and shaper of the technology environment. Said Kalil: "The administration is technology neutral."

The government sets national goals, such as connecting classrooms across the country to the Internet, and tries to create the right regulatory environment by encouraging investment in research and development and ensuring foreign markets remain open, he said.

Among the administration's accomplishments cited by Kalil were its use of auctions to introduce more efficiency into the use of the broadband radio spectrum, the transfer of large blocks of spectrum from the government to the private sector, support for investment in research and development and testbeds, and numerous projects funded by DARPA.

Figures on cellular use from the 1997 Statistical Abstract of the United States attest to significant growth in the wireless sector.

For example, operating revenues of cellular and other radiotelephone companies in 1990 were just over $6 billion. In 1995, that figure exceeded $21 billion. The number of cellular subscribers in the United States zoomed to more than 44 million by 1996 from 5.3 million in 1990.

George Strawn, division director of Advanced Networking Infrastructure and Research at the National Science Foundation, told the gathering on government wireless policy that his vision of the future includes "untethered access to the Internet."

During the session, he focused on his group's mission as a science and engineering research supporting agency and reviewed its role in accelerating the development of the Internet.

After citing several innovative projects that the foundation is now funding, including Internet to the Rain Forest and Internet to research ships, he asked attendees, "What can the NSF do to help develop a wireless Internet?" and wondered aloud whether the research and education community would be "on the point" as it was in the development of the Internet in the late 1980s.

Using a four-phase model of technology penetration that included experimental (only available in the laboratory), exotic (expensive and only bought by early adopters), manufacturable and pervasive, he characterized the emergence of three innovations: electronic digital computing, the Internet and wireless.

In the first case, he noted that the experimental phase was the late 1930s with key inventions, the exotic phase occurred in 1951 with the availability of UNIVAC, the manufacturable phase occurred in 1981 with the introduction of the IBM PC and the last phase, pervasive, has yet to occur.

The wireless Internet, according to his model, is now in its second phase, that is, exotic. Its first phase occurred in the mid-1970s with work undertaken by DARPA.

Joining Kalil and Strawn were Joseph Gattuso and Stephen Downs, deputy assistant administrator and director, respectively, of Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance in the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, who discussed policy and practical applications for wireless.

Their group advises the Clinton administration on policy issues, among other tasks.

While admitting the division was not hard and fast, Gattuso divided policy issues into those on spectrum and those on wireless. Under the first category, he placed economics, operating rights and the efficient allocation of resources. In the latter, he covered wireless local loop, including fixed wireless and mobile communications, as ways to develop competition in telecommunications.

"We are also looking to see where the government can use commercial communications devices, such as cellular phones," he told the audience, holding up his recently acquired government cell phone.

Downs focused on a broad array of practical uses of wireless in programs that his office has funded since 1994 to the tune of 332 matching grants in 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. About $100 million in federal grant funds have been matched by more than $150 million in non-federal funds.

The TIIA Program promotes advanced telecommunications and information technologies in the public and nonprofit arenas.

The program offers matching demonstration grants to state and local governments, health care providers, school districts, libraries, social service organizations and public safety services to develop information infrastructures and services for all citizens.

The program was created to support the National Information Infrastructure. Among the numerous applications were emergency medicine, emergency dispatching, public health, law enforcement, community development and education.

For example, in the hills and mountains of Tennessee, the number of fatalities from vehicle accidents is relatively high because of the distance to hospitals. Using digital cameras and cellular models, emergency medical teams can now transmit pictures to hospitals and receive instructions on the best location to take the victims.

In the area of public health, Columbia University in New York instituted a program for nurses to visit victims of tuberculosis with handheld devices to record medical information to update patient records in the hospital and receive guidance on care from physicians.

In community development, York, Pa., developed a community assistance mapping program to track and monitor its community assets, including the work skills of residents, to assess its economic vitality.

A similar program is under way in Dallas. It's called Net on Wheels and it matches people with jobs. That program uses a mobile van equipped with computers to offer low-income and educationally disadvantaged residents job training and employment information and services.

For its part, DARPA has requested a comprehensive assessment of wireless, mobile and untethered communications systems development, government officials said.

The project will examine innovation trends and prospects for enhanced transfer of commercial technology to support military needs.

One study funded by DARPA is examining the development and impacts of future wireless and satellite technologies. It will recommend steps to facilitate the evolution of untethered communications as part of the national and global information infrastructure. A committee of 15 experts are to conduct a comprehensive assessment of issues relating to progress in wireless and untethered communications systems.

It will focus on promoting technology development that could support military needs, in part through stimulating better civilian technology that could be leveraged, as commercial off-the-shelf systems or with possible retrofits, for military applications.

The committee has been briefed by developers and users of untethered systems and is now developing a report that integrates consideration of technical and nontechnical trends and issues as a basis for recommendations for further research, according to DARPA.


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