Thursday, December 31, 2009

WiFi Plus Mobile = A Whole New Ballgame for Content and Communications

What can happen when you combine wireless broadband Web access with local wifi hotspots? A lot, when you come to think of it. Gizmos such as Novatel's "MiFi" unit that enable someone with mobile broadband access to set up their own local wireless "hot spot" have been out for several months, but the importance of these units is heating up with their connection to higher-powered broadband networks and the addition of features such as onboard data storage on SD cards. With more throughput and storage for data comes more ability to use these units to coordinate the bushel of devices that technophiles now travel with, helping them to synchronize communications with the world and with one another through one convenient hub. But it also presages a major shift in how homes, businesses and the world connect with one another for content.

Today most people have their mobile connectivity running in parallel with their home or office connectivity, including parallel networks for voice, video and data that cost a handsome sum for most people using them. Yet with one of these mobile network hub devices, it's easy to see how all but the most demanding uses for voice, data and video can funnel through a mobile broadband connection that can stay on our desktop or follow us on the go. Our smart phones, our eBook readers, our netbooks, our desktops, our in-home phones and our home entertainment devices can all be brought together on one seamless wifi-based communications medium.

This is likely to accelerate the move in voice communications away from traditional point-to-point circuit networks and towards an era in which voice communications are a feature of integrated voice, data and video services. It also means that we're more likely to overcome some of the global connectivity issues that exist for mobile devices: be it CDMA or GSM networks underlying mobile broadband connectivity, if you're near a hotspot of some origin, you should be able to get voice and data communications. Services such as Skype will certainly prosper in the process, but other services such as Google Voice, which help voice communications to get routed to any number of devices, are also likely to prosper as voice communications become more identity-centered rather than phone number-centered.

The bigger picture, though, is of a world in which inexpensive broadband hub devices can be placed easily in small communities and used to power local communications with both the outside world and with people within the community. Today we're seeing these devices powering personal communications, but I think that the larger potential is for devices that can connect communities with one another first and foremost with a minimum of technology. If you are living in a community in which each person cannot afford a mobile phone, that community may be able to afford collectively one connection to the outside world which is shared with a MiFi-like device that can make its connection available to the community in a reasonable scope, say a kilometer or so. People in that community could then use their mobile devices to communicate with one another and with the world, with very little ongoing cost to any one person beyond the initial cost of their own device. Most importantly, you could set up these local communications networks with or without direct connectivity to the outside world. You could have your own local Web of sorts, perhaps even with services such as Google Wave being used on a federated basis to facilitate content collection, communications and collaboration.

In turn, these individual communities could cooperate with other local communities to build "bottom-up" communications networks, developing regional communications systems that may be centered around local languages and dialects, connecting to more commonly used languages found in the "outside world" through a handful of communications access points. Every kilometer or so you could poke a solar-powered hub device into a convenient spot to keep the influence of a particular network growing. All of this would be developed on global communications standards, of course, enabling new ways to connect to the world over time, but regional communications would thrive, with or without help from the "outside world."

While the more than 1.4 billion people already using the Web are certainly a significant marketplace, I do believe that much of the future power of Web-based communications will be found in the expansion of more "bottom-up" networks amongst the five-plus billion other people in communities that find themselves on a different economic and cultural playing field than the rest of the world. We talk sometimes about the "dark Web" of content unavailable to search engines on the Internet, but there's a far greater "dark Web" of knowledge and culture that's beyond the Web altogether. The "top-down" Web will penetrate this arena only so far, as it tends to be in the hands of people who have, in their own way, a great deal of autonomy, in part because of their economic isolation. But as the "bottom-up" Webs begin to meet the world of the Web as a whole, it will be exciting to see how both economic and culture opportunities for people on both sides of this divide develop.

Fortunately there are devices coming along that should help to accelerate this convergence. The One Laptop Per Child organization is targeting the release of a $75 device called XO-3 that is a bone-simple tablet equipped with wireless communications. As technology tends to push towards such visionary price points sometimes more rapidly than the pioneers, I think that it's safe to say that within a few years the convergence of such devices with localized broadband networking will enable communities around the world to join the Web age in ways that may surprise the rest of the world. So if you're looking for great new opportunities in content markets, I think that "going local" may take on a whole new range of meaning shortly. We'll keep you posted on these trends throughout 2010. Have a happy new year celebration and best wishes for a prosperous 2010!
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