Sometime in the not-too-distant future you may be driving down the Turnpike, your trusty laptop at your side. You come within range of an Infostation, a device that looks a like a lamppost with an antenna, and hit download. In the blink of an eye, the Infostation sends a preloaded electronic package of news, faxes, voicemail, maps, and graphics right into your laptop through a radio modem. Then your computer beeps, telling you the transmission is completed.
A group of Rutgers University professors hope to produce a prototype of such technology sometime in the next 18 months to three years. This technology would represent an upgrade of current existing wireless technologies that allow low-bandwidth transmissions like E-mail and voice mail. Infostations would be able transmit not only E-mail but faxes, voicemail, maps, and other complex computer files in lightning fast times to recipients on the move.
In fact, Infostations could be installed not only alongside highways but in hotel lobbies, shopping malls, airports, and office buildings. For instance, a doorway to an office building could be equipped with a walk-by Infostation, so that someone entering the building with a wireless receiver could be greeted with an electronic transmission from an Infostation in the doorway. A sit-down model would function more like an ATM, and would be designed to handle more complex computing functions. These latter two models will be easier to develop because the receiver is moving considerably slower.
There could even be wider applications of the Infostation: future electronic newspaper dispensers could update person-dependent or location-dependent digital papers. For instance, commuters in different cities could get the same publication edited with articles pertinent to their specific location. Or investors would be able to have personal stock tables updated from any nearby Infostation, whether it’s in a bank, a gas station, a highway, or hotel.
The Infostation is an offshoot of the ongoing Rutgers Dataman project started in 1991 by Tomasz Imielinski, the chairman of the Rutgers’ computer science department, and his colleague, B.R. Badri Badrinath. Dataman’s mission was to develop ways to access the Internet from mobile sources and in 1995 it received a three-year, $1.6 million grant from the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA created the Internet’s predecessor, the Arpanet). For this project Imielinski and Badrinath wrote computer protocols for global integration systems, a technology related to global positioning systems now being used in new car models.
Then last year, Imielinksi and Badrinath added two colleagues from the Rutgers Wireless Information Network Laboratory (WINLAB), David Goodman and Richard Frenkiel, to develop a related concept calling for a high bandwidth wireless island capable of transmitting really big files, i.e., the Infostation. Says Badrinath, the project director from India who teaches computer science at Rutgers, all the cogs in the wheel are set to move the project into high gear.
In July of this year DARPA awarded the Infostations project a $2.15 million grant as part of a larger effort to create a mobile wireless battlefield network. The military is also interested in sporadically-deployable Infostations, says Badrinath. We were surprised at the speed with which we got the grant.
They will use the money to work out some engineering and computer-related problems there are many. Badrinath says that the major challenge is designing protocols that can work over the wireless medium at high speeds. Not only do we need high bandwidth protocols but we must make sure there are low delays, he says. Right now that’s the fundamental problem.
Badrinath, 37, the Class of 1983 at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, earned a Ph.D from the UMass-Amherst in 1989. He is currently on sabbatical in Berkeley, California.
The Infostation would be a departure from the current means of performing computing functions over the air via cellular digital packet data technology. CDPD allows users to relay information via the licensed wireless spectrum virtually from anywhere to anywhere and now allows users to access the Internet and send and receive E-mail from mobile sources. It all depends on your proximity to a cell site, says Nick Zemlachenko, a regional director of data sales for Bell Atlantic Mobile.
But, compared to the Infostation, CDPD is snail slow. Its maximum bit rate is 19.2 kilobytes per second a 10-page fax could take half an hour to transmit. Theoretically, Frenkiel explains, huge files could be sent quickly with cellular, but then all or most of the cellular spectrum would need to be utilized for the one transmission. But then what would you do with everything else? he adds. The amount of spectrum that you have and the amount of infrastructure that wants to be built doesn’t allow that.
The Infostation, which uses the unlicensed radio spectrum, presents a tradeoff between speed and ubiquity. Infostations would have a bit rate of between 2 and 10 megabytes per second (50 to 100 times faster than CDPD), allowing a 10-page fax to be downloaded relatively instantly. But the user needs to be in close proximity to an Infostation. If you sacrifice real time response, I can give you a much higher bit rate, says Imielinski. It’s impossible to achieve this high bandwidth (2 MB per second) in a universal way.
One solution to this limitation would be to put Infostations everywhere, although this would probably carry an exorbitant cost. But perhaps the cost will be justified by the Infostation’s impact Imielinski suggests that the Infostation could have an impact similar to the automated teller machine. People will be changing their routing plans in order to drive by information kiosks like this, he says.
Imielinski, 43, is from Gdansk, Poland, the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, the son of two physicians who are still practicing there. (Along with his teaching duties, he plays lead guitar for a rock band, the Professors, which consists of Rutgers University professors and graduate students. Some of my students try to get independent studies in mobile computing by telling me what instrument they play, he says. Imielinski prefers to play heavy metal. Rage Against the Machine, these are my heroes! he declares.)
Goodman, 58, teaches electrical engineering at Rutgers and heads WINLAB, a cooperative research center co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and funded by 20 corporations and government organizations on three continents. He started it in 1988 after 21 years as head of research at AT&T’s Bell Labs. I had a fire in my belly to get a wireless research project going, he says. It was a very strong belief that I had and it wasn’t quite shared in 1988. They said, `Yeah it sounds like an interesting niche, you can be a big fish in a small pond.’ But I really felt it would be a huge thing.
Frenkiel, 54, is a self-described systems engineering type who, like Goodman, spent most of his career at Bell Labs. From 1963 to 1993 he was a director of R&D who spent most of his time there working on cellular systems but ended up in cordless telephones. Now retired, Frenkiel is a visiting professor at Rutgers and a senior consultant at WINLAB. I fool around, he says. Right now I’m mostly working on this.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge the Infostation project faces is the drive-through model: how can information be transmitted between an exit sign and a car moving at 60-plus miles per hour? Badrinath admits that the hardware that could deliver the required bandwidth isn’t available. Drive-by has a lot of challenges, because from a protocol perspective, if I cannot deliver the data to you within two seconds it’s useless. There are a lot of time constraints in designing protocols, which is a new research challenge. Hopefully in three years we should be able to download at 2 MB per second at 30 miles per hour. That’s a reasonable goal.
Imielinski points out another possible snag: what happens when a transmission attempt on ahighway fails? I could see someone pulling over and causing a traffic jam, he says. The solution could be to erect a series of drive-by Infostations close together, he adds.
Goodman’s concerns for Dataman have to do with ensuring that the system will have enough space in the radio spectrum to accommodate all users. You have this Infostation and it’s available to anyone in range. How do they share the radio channel in a fair and efficient way? he asks.
When we talk about the sit-through, we think of putting these things in crowded places where a lot of people want to use them. We have to decide how to share the Infostation fairly with a number of these people. We want to do it automatically so somebody can’t hog it. We don’t really know how to do this. It’s a new problem.
Then there’s the issue of compatibility: how will a variety of receivers communicate with the Infostation? Somewhere out on the network that’s running the Infostation, something has to be aware of what you’re carrying with you, says Goodman. We have to adapt the information to whatever it is that the person is carrying with them at the time.
The Infostation could add a breath of fresh air to a wireless industry that has not been very nice to the little guy lately. In July, 1996, the Federal Communications Commission tried to let the little guys in, auctioning off personal communications services (PCS) licenses to operate the third C-block of the licensed radio spectrum. The auction was exclusively held for small, entrepreneurial firms, many of whom were eager to get positioned in the nascent wireless computing market already being explored by telecoms and cellular providers.
But the response was too enthusiastic: in an auction that would raise $10 billion for the federal government, bids were driven up more than 2.5 times higher than the cost of space obtained by wire-based telecom giants two years prior. Then this year, the government held another auction that was underbid; portions of spectrum were auctioned for fractions of what was paid in the last auction. Because of this, many wireless entrepreneurs have become unable to repay generous loans given to them by Uncle Sam and the FCC is now considering a plan to allow the struggling entrepreneurs to return their licenses in exchange for being absolved from their debts.
Experts agree that for many entrepreneurs now getting involved with the PCS industry, the C-block fiasco has had a dampening effect. In the interim it will make it a bit more difficult for entrepreneurs to raise capital to finance new wireless service providers, says Thomas Smith, a general partner at Edison Venture Fund on Lenox Drive. This whole PCS phenomenon is creating a certain amount of skepticism around the investment community. It’s going to be different and therefore more costly to raise capital. But I think that in the long term there are going to be lots of very successful entrepreneurs who are developing new applications and new types of services on wireless networks. Wireless just makes too much sense.
The buzzword around the industry is killer application. The key for the entrepreneur is not to run head-to-head with the existing cellular service providers who already saturate their territories, but to find a creative service niche, in which the big players will want to invest.
Tamara Kanoc, a marketing communications manager for Nettech Systems, the Research Park-based developer of middleware, software that enables applications to be transported from wired networks to wireless devices, suggests that the industry is moving towards accommodating a white collar professional vertical market. When you build an application using our middleware the application can support many different networks, different handheld devices, and standard operating systems, she says. It makes it easier to port your application from device to another without having to learn all the protocols and become experts in wireless communications.
Right now, Kanoc adds, we see a lot of movement in vertical markets, transportation, logistics, and field service. We have a very strong customer base there.
But, she adds, it will take some time before your average professional out on the street needs wireless access to his E-mail or wireless Web browsing or something like that.
Mercedes Benz, however, thinks it’s high time cars started surfing the ‘Net. The German car maker is now testing an Internet on wheels system that would allow information from the car computer to be transmitted via the car’s cellular phone to a computer in the mechanic’s shop. The messages would have considerably smaller byte sizes than those sent via an Infostation.
One way to market the Infostation, its proponents maintain, would be as a value-added and unobtrusive component to everything from a convenience store to a gas station. Because the Infostation uses the unlicensed spectrum, it means that anybody from a store owner to a highway administrator could install one. Besides the promotional value a machine could bring to a business’s location, money could be made from the actual transactions (a model similar to that of the automated teller machine market). Meanwhile, content providers could profit by providing localized information.
Imielinski suggests that the Infostation could also be one of those niche services that could help the embattled PCS provider. It would be a differentiating factor between them and other providers, he says.
Another value-added possibility is in the gadgets that will serve as the receivers. So far the experiments are using a laptop, but when (and if) the Infostation hits the market, variations on portable computing will probably be in vogue. The whole industry is groping around for these pocket-sized information devices, says Goodman. The more expensive they are the more stuff they can do, but then who’s going to spend that money? We think that these Infostations will add value to them.
The drive-by business model would be a little different from the pedestrian models. You could imagine the same kind of environment as you would for E-Z Pass, says Imielinski, referring to the wireless payment system now being introduced at toll stations.
But most wireless people will admit that their revolution does not include world dominion there simply isn’t enough bandwidth in the radio spectrum to outmode the electrical wire. The Infostation folks agree: their model is only partially wireless the laptop and the Infostation’s receptors are capped with radio modems, but the machine itself is physically wired to the Internet.
But Sam Gronner, a director of public relations for Lucent Technologies, questions the need for an Infostation. How much data do you need traveling on Route 1 or the Turnpike? If it’s information you’re trying to get off the Internet like a traffic report or stock prices, there is technology available today that strips a lot of the unnecessary graphics and delivers the very tidbit of information you need and you don’t need very high transmission rates for that.
The arbiter of the Infostation’s success seems to be whether or not people will find a need to send really big files while they’re in transit. The Infostation folks are betting on it. If the only killer application is electronic mail then this probably will not take off, says Imielinski. On the other hand everything seems to indicate that it won’t be. Trekkies, fond of transporter beams, would probably concur.