Friday, August 3, 2007

Wireless wallets?

Did you know that your wallet has now gone wireless?

An organization, called the Near Field Communications Forum is sponsoring the development of wireless applications for consumer purchases. Soon, we will be able to buy bus or train tickets wirelessly, as well as products from specially-designed vending machines, and other consumer goods simply by pressing a few buttons on our cell phones.

The following description of near-field communication was quoted from the nfc-forum web site, and provides an interesting overview of this emerging retail trend.

"Near Field Communication (NFC) is a new, short-range wireless connectivity technology that evolved from a combination of existing contactless identification and interconnection technologies. Products with built-in NFC will dramatically simplify the way consumer devices interact with one another, helping people speed connections, receive and share information and even make fast and secure payments.

Operating at 13.56 MHz and transferring data at up to 424 Kbits/second, NFC provides intuitive, simple, and safe communication between electronic devices. NFC is both a “read” and “write” technology. Communication between two NFC-compatible devices occurs when they are brought within four centimeters of one another: a simple wave or touch can establish an NFC connection, which is then compatible with other known wireless technologies such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. The underlying layers of NFC technology follow universally implemented ISO, ECMA, and ETSI standards. Because the transmission range is so short, NFC-enabled transactions are inherently secure. Also, physical proximity of the device to the reader gives users the reassurance of being in control of the process.

NFC can be used with a variety of devices, from mobile phones that enable payment or transfer information to digital cameras that send their photos to a TV set with just a touch. The possibilities are endless, and NFC is sure to take the complexities out of today’s increasingly sophisticated consumer devices and make them simpler to use."

Already, some Japanese companies are experimenting with this technology. NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest wireless carrier, possesses approximately 55% of its country's wireless market, and is forming partnerships with opnline credit-card agencies to provide a seamless wireless shopping service for their subscribers.

So, in the future, if you want a Coke and you're short of cash, just press the Send button on your cell phone--the remote control for our lives.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The wireless market's new balancing act

Could the traditional seesaw totter between lessors and lessees of wireless sites be leveling itself out?

Balanced markets exist when buyers and sellers are on an equal footing, with neither party having a significant advantage over the other. With wireless, balanced market-conditions would exist when the lessor and lessee have an equal amount of influence.

Historically, wireless carriers have had more negotiating leverage compared with property owners or lessors. The carriers knew what it would cost them to construct a typical wireless site, the length of time to recover that investment, and what they are paying in rent for other sites in their network. Yet owners, by and large, did not have any of this information. Without a market vehicle to check rent offers (like classified ads, multiple-listing services, commercial brokers or appraisals), owners often accepted the first offer presented by the carriers—set at deliberately-low amounts that favored the lessee.

Although wireless leasing is still not as open and porous as the markets for others forms of real estate, the supply of new site leases is beginning to slow down in metropolitan areas with established wireless infrastructure. In San Diego, for example, the four major carriers (Verizon, Cingular/AT&T, Sprint-Nextel and T-Mobile) established their core wireless networks a number of years ago. For these companies, construction is mostly limited to site upgrades, or infilling with smaller sites to fill in coverage gaps. Only one carrier (Cricket Communications) is aggressively building out their core network at this time.

Recent numbers from the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association are indicating that the supply of cell sites may be leveling off, after more than a decade of exponential growth.

In fact, for the last three years, the annual rate of growth dropped below ten percent for the first time in several years, averaging 6.28%. In 2005, the number of sites nationwide increased by only 4.5% from the previous year, and 2006 reported a 6.5% increase from the 2005 total.

Since a key precursor to a balanced market is the equalization of supply and demand, these early cell-sites totals may indicate that supply and demand are trending closer together.

Another early indication that the wireless market may be balancing out is the emergence of tenant brokers (like Black Dot Wireless, MD7 and ITRA Realty Group) who only represent carriers and other lessees. These tenant reps have had some initial success at re-negotiate existing leases with high rents to lower amounts—a process these companies call “lease optimization.”

This is a marked shift from the early days of wireless site-leasing, when carriers could find plenty of opportunities to negotiate favorable lease terms—and could mean that balanced market conditions are not far off.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Growing like the cells of your skin

Telecom cells and the cells of your skin are not as different as you might think.

In both contexts, cells serve as basic building blocks, from which larger organisms can be created. Within a wireless context, cells are both a basic building block for a larger organism (the cellular network), and an agent for social interaction.

According to Dr. Charles W. Emarine, a radiologist with Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, skin cells grow in a process called epithelization. When we receive a cut or wound, new epithelial cells (skin cells) begin to grow from the edges of the wound towards the center. The better the blood supply to the underlying dermis, the faster the epithelial growth. Eventually, these new skin cells will form fibers (or “corridors”) across the healing wound, as the clusters of new skin cells start to link together. Eventually, these various fibrous corridors will merge resulting in a fully-covered wound,

Telecom-cell growth has, and continues to, spread across this country in irregular ripples, from population centers to rural areas, and from business cores out to the “burbs.” At its simplest, cell growth goes through distinct stages of development.

1.) Cluster growth in test markets

2.) Formation of a backbone, linking clusters together

3.) Branches form off of the central backbone

4.) Coverage gaps are eventually filled in with smaller and smaller cell sites, until the

area in question is “filled in” with wireless coverage.

5.) Renewal, as older cells are replaced with newer ones.

Just as with skin cells, as the weave of wireless fibers grow closer together, the gaps of coverage in between these fibers become smaller. In turn, the cell sites being built to fill in those coverage gaps are also getting smaller.

Although a cell site’s radius depends upon its surrounding topography and its capacity to handle calls, cell sites in rural areas generally have a radius between five and eight miles, and cell sites in urban areas typically have a radius between two and five miles.

As call volume increases within a given cell, demand for frequency reuse (in other words, the cell’s ability to handle more calls) will also increase until the cell reaches its maximum processing capacity. Therefore, to preserve wireless coverage and to provide for future growth, carriers are breaking up larger sites into smaller ones. Depending on the specific topography of the area to be covered, a handful of smaller sites at lower elevations could be substituted for one high-elevation site at capacity.

Our need to share information is analogous to the flow of blood for skin cells. As Dr. Emarine pointed out, increased blood flow can lead to faster epithelial-cell growth. Consequently, increased telecom-cell growth is usually the end result of an increased need to share information.

In 1996, the total number of cell sites in service, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), was 30,045 sites. One year later, this number rose to 51,600—an increase of 71%. At this time, 38 million cell phones were in use across the country, and the average consumer used his or her phone for 122 minutes per month. By 2003, almost 163,000 cell sites had been built, and the average subscriber was spending more than 300 minutes per month on the phone. According to the latest data from the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, as of 2006, 77.1% of our country’s population had cell phones (up from 61.5% in 2004, and 50% as of 2003), which is slightly higher than Japan’s current saturation rate of 76.5%. In countries like Norway and Sweden, which offer universal mobile coverage, the saturation rate is near 90%. As of 2004, the Czech Republic had a saturation rate of 93%, according to industry researcher IDC. In an April 2007 press release, IDC indicated that “the worldwide telecom billing market will reach $6.6 billion by 2011, increasing steadily at a compound annual growth rate of 6.7% from 2007 to 2011.”

Friday, May 25, 2007

Can cell phones and "smart" keys co-exist?

If you've been fortunate enough to have purchased a car within the last few years or so, chances are it came with a "smart" key, which has a computer chip embedded in its plastic fob. These intelligent keys have been designed to allow keyless entry; you can enter your car (or, with some models, even start it up) without taking the key out of your pocket.

However, here's something to keep in mind. Don't keep your cell phone in the same pocket.

A statement released May 23 by Nissan North America indicated that some cell-phone models can interfere with the wireless functionality of the smart key if the phones are within an inch of the chips in the plastic fobs. Although Nissan hasn't received any complaints from customers, they will be introducing a revised I-Key that cannot be interfered with.

Presently, smart keys are offered on a variety of new makes and models, and are known by various names depending on the manufacturer. A list of some of these names include:

The Toyota Camry is available with the advanced key as an option starting with the 2007 model year. The Nissan Versa is available with Intelligent Key as an option on the 2007 SL model.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A COW That Doesn't Produce Milk

When is a COW not a cow?

When it is a portable cell site. Many municipalities use "cows," or cellular-site on wheels, to establish temporary coverage for an area, or to augment the coverage for a special even when call-volume loads would be higher than normal. A typical "cow" consists of a 30' to 100' telescoping monopole, equipment cabinets and power generator--all mounted to a trailer (see photo). In October of 2003, when the Cedar fire destroyed much of the communications infrastructure in San Diego's East County, a number of private carriers, working with local government, brought in COWs to establish emergency cellular service for the firefighters and emergency-service personnel. Companies like the Avisar Group ( have developed their own market niche by providing truck and trailer-based cell sites to public and private agencies.

Sometimes, a COW can be a COLT. COLT stands for cellular-site on a light truck (or van) and were critical in providing communications for portions of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and in lower Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11. Missouri and Kansas currently have an agreement in place with a local cellular-phone provider to provide COW services in the event of an emergency. Under this agreement, the carrier could augment or replace damaged communications lines with their portable trailers in less than 24 hours. This type of public-private partnership is being considered in several other budget-strapped cities faced with the challenge of upgrading older emergency-communications equipment, but lacking the funds for permanent installations.

In 1998, when Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Georges, more than 490,000 landlines were down or had no intra-island long-distance service. CellularOne Puerto Rico, one of three wireless carriers serving the island, reported that by the next morning after the hurricane, more than 85% of their wireless network was damaged. However, by using COWs, the carrier had 75% of their network back online in three days, and 90% in less than a week.

As Chris Wilson reports in an April 17 article for US News and World Report, man-made tragedies like the Virginia Tech incident can also strain a local wireless network, as frantic phone calls flood into and out of the system. Wilson writes that "companies build enough technical capacity into their systems for only a 2 percent increase over normal levels before calls start getting dropped."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The perfect cell phone

I think the perfect cell phone was the Star Trek Communicator.

Think about it. It could communicate over insanely long distances, and under any kind of weather conditions. It worked inside buildings, in caves and tunnels, anywhere.

A couple of new phones on the market now are coming closer to offering the type of universal communication that was previously only available in science fiction.

In the fall of last year, Samsung introduced its first WiMax-enabled cell phone. This do-everything phone has three hinged pieces, which when opened fully, offer a full QWERTY keyboard, 5-inch WVGA screen, and a 30-GB hard drive, plus the usual extras like an mp3 player, camera, and video.

If you're tired of squinting at the tiny letters on your cell-phone's display, then Telecom Italia has a phone for you. Working with Polymer Vision, they have introduced a cell phone with a unique rollable display. As shown in the photo to the left, the display is larger than the handset itself, and offers readability similar to printed paper. Rollable color screens are planned for future models.

As part of its multi-million-dollar WiMax gamble set for a 2008 launch, Sprint recently introduced its first WiMax-enabled phone, as well as a sports and entertainment "network" known as Sprint Power View with daily video news clips. Access to the network will be on a subscription basis, with basic voice packages starting at $30 a month, with unlimited access to Power View as an add-on cost of $15 to $25 per month. In addition, Sprint is exploring a number of avenues to bring WiMax coverage indoors. According to Bin Shen, Sprint-Nextel's VP of Broadband, in an article for, Sprint "is examining a number of WiFi options--from small cells that link to the Internet over Ehternet cable to more standard cellular-style distributed antenna systems. 'It depends on the situation,' says Shen. 'There is no kind of uniform way that we can do this.'"

However, if Sprint is able to strike gold on some of its indoor WiMax claims, then it could become a significant competitor to traditional WiFi providers--since Sprint could offer blazing-fast connections three to five times faster than WiFi at the same cost.

Other new phones offer even more goodies. For example, the Nokia 6131 can be used as a wireless credit card, transferring payment information to pads at certain retail stores. Other "smartphones" will have Windows-like interfaces, which will allow users to run several applications at the same time, without having to close any of them.

Beam me up, Scotty.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Another new microcell application: Marathons

It seems as if every week another new application surfaces for microcells--those small wireless cell sites you might see on light poles or traffic lights around your city.

How about marathons?

Thanks to the use of radio-frequency chips (or RFIDs), fans supporting their spouses or loved ones in 5Ks or marathons can now receive up-to-the-minute text messages and emails on their cell phones, while they wait anxiously on the sidelines, or pace in the comfort of their living rooms.

The hosts of the San Diego Marathon began rolling out pressure-sensitive mats at six locations along their 26.2-mile route in 2005. Then, they would give runners RFID chips which attach to their shoes. As the runners pass over the mats, a transmitter inside the chip sends a unique ID code to the nearest microcell antenna, which then routes the ID and the runner's elapsed time to a central database, which can then send out text alerts to designated people specified by the runner during their registration. From the time a runner hits the mat until a text message reaches your cell phone will be no more than four seconds.

During the Boston Marathon on April 16th, fans will be able to follow up to five runners at a time using laptops with wireless modems. In 2006, approximately 10,232 runners (or about half of the total number of participants) signed up for on-line alerts.

Fans following the Chicago Marathon can duck into designated Starbucks cafes along the race route, where volunteers with laptops will be able to check on the current status of any runner in the race. New York has been using similar technology since 2000.

Organizers of the Houston Marathon offer RFIDs plus an interactive online map that can be used to track a runner's progress. The marathon's web site also offers a detailed post-game statistical report for runners and video clips of their efforts.

The costs for this high-tech service vary widely, and depend on the location and the number of participants in a given race. Runners can pay only $1 to $2 for an RFID chip (the cost is usually added to their race-entry fee), or as much as $20,000 for a more elaborate tracking system.