A new set of advanced wireless technologies now promises to bring affordable, high-speed Internet connectivity to the masses. This set of technologies, and the market opportunity they create, has been termed the "Portable Internet", and is the subject of a new ITU report.
The Asia-Pacific region passed the symbolic mark of one billion telecommunication users, mobile phones and fixed lines combined in October 2003. Until now, those users that wanted to have high-speed access to the Internet had to have a fixed-line connection. Before the end of this decade, another billion users of information and communication technologies (ICTs) are likely to be added to the regionís networks, but the majority of them will be connected using radiocommunications. "The fixed-line network is simply growing too slowly to meet the regionís burgeoning demand for broadband, especially in rural areas," notes Dr Tim Kelly, Head of ITUís Strategy and Policy Unit, which produced the report. "But todayís second-generation cellular mobile networks are not geared up for delivering high-speed Internet access."
Portable Internet technologies, very much in evidence on the Exhibition floor at ITU TELECOM ASIA 2004, promise to cut the cords to a wire-free future in which Internet access, for both fixed locations and users on the move, is supplied over the airwaves. The technologies that make up the portable Internet operate at short, medium and long range, according to the geographical range of their radio signals (see Figure 1). Short-range technologies, such as Bluetooth, ZigBee and RFID allow low-power connectivity within a range of 30 metres. Medium-range technologies can communicate at least 150 metres from a hotspot (e.g. Wi-Fi, or IEEE 802.11b) and up to several kilometres, depending on environmental and regulatory factors. Finally, long-range technologies such as WiMAX (IEEE 802.16) and IMT-2000 (3G) have ranges that extend up to 50 kilometres from a base station, and provide near-nationwide coverage when offered as a networked service.
"Fixed-line technologies generally offer higher speeds while IMT-2000, also known as 3G mobile phone networks, offer greater mobility. However, there is a wide gap between these two and many see this as the prime market segment for new portable Internet technologies, especially in developing countries", says Dr Taylor Reynolds, one of the authors of the report, and the project manager of the Digital Bridges symposium. This event, to be held on 10-11 September 2004 in Busan, jointly organized by ITU and the government of the Republic of Korea, brings together experts from around the world to assess the problems of measuring and bridging the digital divide between developed and developing nations.
While wireless local area networks (WLANs), such as those based on the IEEEís Wi-fi standards, already help plug this gap at the local level, a more significant technological advance is on the horizon with WiMAX (more correctly IEEE 802.16a, WiMAX is short for Wireless Interoperability for Microwave Access; sometimes called "Wi-fiís big brother"). These offer connectivity of up to 54 Mbit/s over a range of up to 50 kilometres. In rural areas, and other parts of the world that have no wired network, WiMAX could be the preferred platform for offering a wide range of voice, data and broadcast entertainment services.
In addition to 140 pages of analysis, the report also contains around 60 pages of statistical tables and charts with the latest available data for more than 200 economies worldwide.