Wireless Future

Sometime in 2005, all of downtown Seattle will be connected via a wireless network from Speakeasy. Presumably other major cities will not be far behind. This isn’t free wireless, like the kind $3 latte kind you get at one of the coffee shops around the city. This will be wireless you subscribe to and pay for. The service purports to simultaneously support voice over IP and data according to the press release. Big deal – there are plenty of places you can get wireless access for free. Most people already have Web access at home and at work. Cell phones fill in the gap providing voice connections when we aren’t connected to the Internet.

To me, the big deal is the services a true citywide wireless service might support, assuming the government doesn’t get in the way and make services impossible. Community radio stations, traditionally limited to 100W broadcasts from frequencies at the edge of the broadcast spectrum, subject to signal drop out when you go over a hill will have a new outlet for spreading their message – wireless. Unlike wireless at a coffee shop, which drops out of range when you get too far from the building, a connected city means a wireless connection doesn’t drop, at least in theory. Want to know which local bands are playing at your favorite club – tune in to their online radio station and listen. Of course, you aren’t limited by local content; you could listen to any of thousands of online radio stations as if they are local to your city too.

Drive time before and after work, a vital part of traditional radio listening, can be replaced with stations of your choosing by adding wireless Internet to your car for a few dollars. Yes, you can already do this by playing your own CDs, but think about having all 700 million songs in the Napster library available to your car, along with the thousands of Internet radio stations. We’ll need better interfaces in the car to deal with these new networks, of course. Car manufacturers still haven’t caught on to the idea of true integration between car stereo and portable music player, so it will probably be geeks coming up with an aftermarket solution.

And that doesn’t even account for the video possibilities. Cable access doesn’t over much beyond yoga classes and fringe religious broadcasts, so there may be no hope for local video broadcasts via the Internet. Instead of tuning into cable or satellite, some industrious locals could take over the local news beat, go on location with a video camera and immediately upload a live video stream to the Web, just like the pros do with satellite technology. Podcasting may be getting all the hype as the grassroots tool for the future media, but the killer app for grass roots media remains wireless.