The Coming of Ubiquitous Bandwidth?

At work, I’m often referred to as the ‘neo-luddite‘ because I don’t advocate the rapid adoption of new technologies for their own sake, nor do I adhere to the position that technologies are inherently value neutral. In fact, I think that technologies are typically inscribed with a particular value-orientation; this orientation is not necessarily the one that is expressed at the technology’s creation. I think that there should be genuine thought and caution advanced when developing technologies that could be destructive to various facets of social life. With the introduction of new technologies comes the possibilities of reshaping cultural traditions, and sure a reshaping shouldn’t be done without at least some forethought. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that I see technology as adding to, or detracting from, a culture, but rather that accompanying a new technology’s adoption is a new cultural system with its own unique environmental characteristics. The world with cellphones isn’t the world as it was, plus cell phones, but instead is an entirely different techno-cultural world. We need to be mindful of the potency of new technologies to reshape facets of our lives through the transmutation or abolition of our traditions – doing otherwise is irresponsible to ourselves and the other members of our society.


I should be pretty open – I ‘live’ online, to an extent. A massive amount of my daily business swirls around the transmission of packets of data throughout various data nebulas, and I’d be reasonably lost if I was suddenly cut off from my digital wells for an extended period of time. I know (from historical experiences) that I can survive without drinking from the depths of silicon knowledge-fountains for a far longer period of time than I could when abstaining from drinking liquid water, but once I run out of ‘other stuff’ that needs to be done/read/written I feel reasonably dead in the water without the ‘net. Fortunately, technology is coming about that will ensure I never need to feel cut off from the bit-streams of data that I increasingly subsist on.

In the US there has been a fairly significant push to move towards ubiquitous broadband access in all geographical areas of the US (caveat: that can be monetized). This has taken several twists and turns over the past decade, and presently is moving towards a situation where major communication, hardware, and other corporations (i.e. Google, Sprint, Intel, and VCs) are heavily investing in/partnering with Clearwire to make the WiMAX technology truly come to fruition. Clearwire is partnering with Sprint to use Sprint’s upcoming 4G wireless network, extending WiMAX to 4G saturated area, in addition to expanding its own WiMAX covered zones.

Hold On a Second – What is WiMAX?

WiMAX is an alternate highspeed internet service that differs from ‘traditional’ line services by providing Internet access using a part of the RF spectrum. Specifically, its licensed spectrums include 2.3GHz, 2.5GHz, and 3.5GHz. WiMAX is envisioned as solving the ‘last-mile problem’, that is, the problem of delivering Internet service to users where the delivery of those services is extremely expensive due to to costs of running ‘last mile cables’ from major ISP hubs to individual homes/businesses. By transitioning network access to a wireless model the last mile problem become a significantly smaller problem; just installing a new access point base station and allows for the inclusion of large swathes of new customers at lower overall costs than running wires/renting wires to each home. The downside is that it’s not really as fast as wired connections, but that is made up for in the convenience of having wireless access in any WiMAX area.

Isn’t This Great?

It’s convenient – with WiMAX, all users are able to connect to a ubiquitious wireless network that they are paying to have access to. That’s great, insofar as the customer is provided with a greater degree of convenience, one that (for many) will outweigh the slightly slower bandwidth speeds.

This said…remember two of the ‘big’ backers, Intel and Google, that I mentioned earlier? They’re getting something for investing a combined 1.4 billion in Clearwire. Intel is getting a chance to expand the use of their built-in WiMAX technology – while there are a number of laptops that are sold with this wireless technology, without a convincing reason to adopt the technology (i.e. without ISPs who are providing WiMAX services) Intel will have a hard time selling their product to mass audiences. Google, on the other hand, seems to be purchasing some ‘rights’ to advance their long-term strategies of expanding into emerging markets (in this case, ubiquitous bandwidth markets):

— the right to develop Internet and advertising services and applications for Clearwire’s WiMax devices, extending its advertising lead from the Internet into mobile.

— the right to be the default search provider and the preferred application provider for Clearwire’s new retail product. It will be interesting to see how extensive this goes. Currently, Clearwire uses Google to provide ISP-like services, including mail. But presumably, a user would be able to choose a different search provider if they wanted. In other words, Clearwire may make Google’s services more accessible, but won’t block any other provider.

— Clearwire will use Google’s Android operating system for future voice and data devices. As long as this isn’t the only OS that Clearwire can support, this seems less significant, although it will give a good boost to the upcoming OS.

— Google mobile search: Google will become the default search provider for web search and local search (GPS-enabled) on the Sprint portal for current and future customers. I believe this means Google is winning this away from Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT). On select new devices later this year, Sprint customers will be able to bring up a Google search box on their device’s home screen, providing them with one-click access to Google mobile search.

— Has the option to enter into 3G and 4G wholesale agreements with Clearwire and Sprint, but has no current plans to do so. This could get very interesting. Google was a participant in the most recent spectrum auction. In hindsight it looks as if it wanted to get the bids to the minimum price at which point the open-access rules would kick in, but it was willing to take the risk that it may just win the spectrum.

— Through its cellular/3G partnership with Sprint, Google will get various apps on Sprint phones by this summer:

— Google Maps for mobile: Also featured on new Sprint handsets and available on some current smart phones will be Google Maps for mobile, an application that enables users to view maps and satellite imagery, find local businesses, get driving directions and view real-time traffic information.

— YouTube: YouTube videos will be accessible from select new Sprint handsets. (Source)

Ubiquitous? How So?

OK, you’ve caught on to the title of the post. Where is the ubiquity in WiMAX? There are (at least) two prime areas to attend to:

  1. Wireless access (don’t think ‘Internet’) everywhere. This leads to the next point…
  2. Banking. City infrastructure. Appliance surveillance. Electrical analyses. etc. WiMAX, if it genuinely transforms into the prevalent mode of providing wireless access, has the potential to let your city officials check how much gas and water you’re using per month with mere database queries, let companies send firmware updates for your stove and water heater, access ‘cloud computing’ services (and note: Google is heavily invested in delivering cloud apps to Clearwire subscribers), and generally network all facets of your life to a computer system, somewhere. In this situation, the only thing that limits the use of WiMAX is bandwidth and imagination. This massive collection of data, of course, means that clear safeguards must be developed for the collection, retention, and encryption of data. Given the persistent spate of data breaches, it strikes me that this technology threatens to amplify these risks, and likely negate the financial benefits that ‘networked efficiency’ proponents will argue for.

A Corporate Security Nightmare

Let’s pretend, for a second, that you work in IT. Let’s continue our thought experiment, and propose that the business that you work for has secrets that it would rather the rest of the world doesn’t become aware of. In many corporations (most corporations?) email is routinely scanned, read, and reported on prior to that email leaving the corporate network perimeter. In an upcoming post, I’m hoping to talk about some of the ways that an innovative corporation might refine this process, but even now companies are pretty good at blocking email leaks. Moreover, many IT departments have staunch ‘no camera phone’ policies, ‘no non-company computer’ policies (i.e. you can’t use personal computing devices for business purposes), and so forth. What happens when your phone has is linked in to WiMAX (i.e. is always connected to your ISP’s network) and you choose to use it to send email? Whereas there are typically rules mandating employees to use corporate accounts only for corporate business, what happens when they can easily abide by that restriction by just turning to their cell phone, letting employees block corporate filters and leak information using their personal accounts? How can corporate It combat that – establish a ‘no cell phone’ policy? I’m not suggesting that WiMAX is something IT can’t deal with . . . just something that will certainly provoke a new set of very real challenges, as IT resources are increasingly stretched thin.

WiMAX: convenient, affordable, capable of shifting culture. WiMAX – the future?