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Wireless Future
Jon Lebkowsky, 16 Jan 04

I'm involved in a future-building exercise for Austin, Texas, a city acknowledged as a high-tech center, therefore slammed by the post-dotcom meltdown. The focus of the work I'm doing is wireless technology, focusing specifically on economic development through Austin's wireless sector. This is one of several local projects to promote economic development through diverse technologies (also including clean energy and nano/bio).

I've been working since last March on a contract with IC² Institute, a local research center associated with the University of Texas. The IC² name represents Innovation + Creativity + Capital – the Institute, founded in 1977 by successful local entrepreneur George Kozmetzky, describes itself as "an international, transdisciplinary 'Think and Do' tank devoted to solving unstructured problems to accelerate wealth & job creation and shared prosperity at home and abroad." I don't think there's anything else quite like it.

Earlier this week we released our core deliverable, a substantial report called Austin's Wireless Future, created with a team of four researchers who looked at various aspects of the local wireless sector from a cluster-building viewpoint. We started with an inventory of pure wireless and blended companies in the area, expecting to find one or two dozen. However we found over ninety companies in various stages of development, many of these focused on unlicensed wireless (e.g. WiFi, WiMax), where the barriers to entry are relatively low. These included access and service providers, software developers, hardware manufacturers - all aspects of the wireless sector were represented. We also found robust community wireless activity through organizations such as Austin Wireless Group and Austin Wireless City. The latter inlcuded teams of volunteers creating and supporting a network of hotspots in diverse local venues, so that as we prepared our report, Austin became a leader in the number of venues offering free wireless access.

We came up with a methodology that was robust:

  • We focused on direct research, i.e. case studies and interviews. The result was a report including material that was more anecdotal, less academic, but more relevant and accessible, therefore a better driver for economic development activity.
  • We made monthly stakeholder meetings a significant part of the project, correctly assuming that these meetings would support cohesion within the industry and reinforce its connection with the rest of the community. These meetings included a diverse mix of company, community, government and academic representatives working together to explore the issues of development. These meetings were also sources of material for the report.
  • We asked The Futures Lab, an Austin-based futurist consultancy, to work with some of the stakeholders to develop scenarios that we incorporated into the report. This exercise was an extremely valuable contribution to our grasp of Austin's role in the evolution of wireless as an industry and as a social and cultural platform.

We learned several "worldchanging" lessons as we developed the report:

  • There are several wireless technologies at various levels of maturity; none will become the platform for the wireless future. Hybrid solutions will evolve; devices will handle multiple protocols as needed according to their use.
  • Though wireless will always be relevant technology for computers and pdas, we will also see a proliferation of task-specific wireless devices.
  • Wireless-specific digital media will be a significant part of the sector, especially for Austin, which is already a hub for games, music, and film.
  • There will be continued development of free wireless hotspots, and certain kinds of venues (such as coffee shops) will be at a competitive disadvantage if they don't offer free WiFi. However users will also work with paid service providers to ensure connectivity and quality of service. Free and fee models will coexist and have complementary aspects.
  • Wireless access will be a low-cost commodity. Access providers will focus more on value-add services for revenues. This reverses the traditional ISP model, where users paid a fee for access bundled with free services.
  • Wireless will be pervasive; you'll have access to everyone you know and all the world's knowledge in the palm of your hand. We'll all be surfing the network effect. Our cars will be LANS, the streets will be WANs. It'll be a worldwide jam.
(NOTE: You can download the Wireless Future report for free as a 3MB pdf file.)

The release of the report doesn't end the project. There's one last phase that takes our focus from local to national: a major wireless conference, Wireless Future, held during South by Southwest Interactive, March 12-16, 2004.

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