news / tech talk

3G Mobile Internet

by Lee LeClair
As seen in Inside Tucson Business

I have written before on the progress of technologies related to broad geography Wi-Fi (e.g., city-wide Wi-Fi vs. coffee shop Wi-Fi). There are lots of competing players, technologies, “standards”, and ways to approach this. Cisco has entered the fray with a “mesh” technology while Intel has been pursuing an airborne (i.e., balloons) approach and cellular companies are using 3G technology. The goal is to be able to provide Internet coverage to large geographical areas (e.g., cities, counties, etc.) without too great an infrastructure investment (trenching, cabling, etc.).

The latest leap forward has been reached by the 3G mobile phone contingent; specifically the United Kingdom based Inmarsat company. On 8 Nov 2005, they launched their second communications satellite into orbit, this one covering the Americas, the Atlantic ocean, and part of the Pacific ocean (roughly half the earth). Their first satellite covers Europe and the other half. This new satellite will support 3G communications through broadband virtual offices. This represents a huge step-up from the old Iridium world cell phone system that died several years ago. The new system is far more likely to survive because it will provide more and better capabilities. First, it will not have Iridium’s technical weakness of building penetration (you had to pretty much be outside). Second, the new system will also support broadband Internet connectivity (probably ~2Mbps initially – faster than a commercial T1 connection). This will allow nearly unlimited possibilities including sending digital pictures, audio, streaming video, and VPNs, as well as email, web surfing, etc.

What differentiates this from some of the other forms of broad geography Wi-Fi? It’s the broadest form of geography coverage; virtually the entire earth. Almost all of the competing forms of Wi-Fi base their coverage around dense population points so big cities have it while rural areas may never have it. What will you need? A laptop and a 3G mobile phone. With the 3G solution, a person could move to no-where Arizona, dig a well, set-up their generator and work as though they were in the middle of Phoenix with both telephone service and Internet connectivity.

The 3G system relies on broadband network connectivity through mobile telephony networks and satellites so that you connect to the net from your computer through your mobile telephone (presumably through Bluetooth, infrared, or a wired connection). Naturally, 3G class telephones will also have direct Internet connectivity and telephone applications like a small browser, email client, etc. but the small form factor of telephones make these emergency applications rather than primary ones. 3G technology has been touted for many years now and the expectations for the technology have cost many large companies enormous sums of money. During the Internet Bubble years, the world telephone companies bid ridiculous sums for the rights to the 3G bandwidth which countries put up for auction. The benefits they expected have not materialized until, presumably, now.

This technology is being aimed at specialized business markets, for example, journalists, disaster workers, National Geographic photographers, and “business travelers”. Why this audience? Well, this kind of targeting typically implies that the cost of the service will be high; higher than consumers are willing to pay but low enough that those with big budgets or no choice will pay it. Still, if the service proves itself commercially viable, then more competitors will get into it and the cost will come down until everyone expects it. It sure would be nice to take my broadband connection with me anywhere (and I mean ANYWHERE) I’d like to go with no more equipment than I take with me anyway.

Lee Le Clair is the CTO at Ephibian. His Tech Talk column appears the third week of each month in Inside Tucson Business