What wireless lessons can the U.S. learn from Europe?

COMMENTARY--After spending a few weeks in France, I've returned to the United States with much more than a new appreciation for fresh bread and a laid-back approach to life. While across the pond, I kept an eye out for signs of wireless activity that could have an impact on the United States.

COMMENTARY--After spending a few weeks in France, I've returned to the United States with much more than a new appreciation for fresh bread and a laid-back approach to life. While across the pond, I kept an eye out for signs of wireless activity that could have an impact on the United States. While France certainly isn't Finland when it comes to the penetration of things wireless, I did learn a few things.

Mais, où sommes-nous?
When traveling in a strange country, knowing where you are and how to get where you want to go is more important than staying connected to e-mail.

My fiancée laughed when I kept pulling out my pocket compass as we traveled, but as a person with a terrible sense of direction, I've learned the value of map reading and orienting oneself correctly. This is why I'm confident that GPS, teamed with wireless, is poised to make a huge impact on the travel business, and on any business where travel is part of the job.

On May 1, 2000, the United States discontinued Selective Availability on GPS, which degraded positioning accuracy. Now, instead of the previous 300-foot accuracy for civil use, the GPS system (which is also in the midst of an upgrade that will add two new civil signals by 2005) can provide accuracy of 30 to 65 feet, and all the way down to 18 feet once the new signals and improvements are online. Adding a differential signal improves accuracy nearly to inches.

The benefits of integrating a GPS receiver with a PDA are overwhelming. Once PDAs equipped with GPS are widespread, we'll be able to download the coordinates of a hotel, car-rental desk, baggage-check location--you name it--and be ready to roll without worrying about getting lost or wasting time. Granted, we still don't have one-chip GPS, but you can buy an add-on GPS device (such as the Delorme Streetfinder Deluxe 2000/GPS, Magellan GPS Companion, or TravRoute's Door-to-Door CoPilot with GPS Receiver 2.0) for a laptop, Pocket PC device, or Handspring Visor right now for about $149.

Adding GPS to mobile phones offers even more. How many times have you called someone you're suppose to meet with to ask, "Where are you?" That line generally is followed by 10 minutes of, "I'm standing in front of the store. Can you see me yet?" If both phones are equipped with GPS with a single button on the phone labeled, say, "send location," one or both persons could push the button and pop their precise location to the other party. Masticate this awhile, and I'm sure you'll quickly come up with an entire list of applications.

While GPS is most closely associated with longitude and latitude coordinates, the U.S. Federal Geographic Data Committee is currently holding a public review (ending June 22) of its U.S. National Grid (USNG) Standard. This alternative coordinate scheme is intended to be easily understood and to tie in with GPS as "the preferred grid system for spatial addressing in general-purpose mapping applications."

Perhaps the most intriguing objective for the USNG Standard is for it to be "a basis for building a street and feature index database that can be accessed and used by any member of the community and used with any map product or device that uses the standard grid." That means you won't need to learn the latitude and longitude system of global navigation when traveling in the United States. (As any student of celestial navigation--or history--knows, figuring out longitude is very tricky indeed.) Instead, you'll be able to use a simpler X-Y system.

The Travel Industry Association of America forecasts that people will take more than a billion trips of 50 miles or more this year. The TIA estimates total expenditure on and for these excursions will hit upwards of $582 billion.

Can you hear the wheels turning? Wireless is going to be several orders of magnitude bigger than most pundits predict, not (at least at first) for high-speed 3G communications, but for new GPS applications.

3G over there
And speaking of 3G: As the United States chooses a go-slow strategy for high-speed wireless (partly by design, partly due to spectrum snags), European telecoms are wringing their collective hands over how to dig out from the debacles of spectrum auctions, which found them spending huge amounts (up to $20 billion in one case) for spectrum. Now they have to figure out how to pay for it and make a profit. Many have recently and reluctantly concluded that the only way to get the fiscal monkey off their backs is to build and stock the new networks as quickly as possible.

Yes, it sounds like the old joke: "We lose money on each sale, but make up for it in volume." And although I'm firmly in the pessimist camp regarding 3G, Europe's approach might just play out. I'm not saying it will, but if the telecoms play their cards right and develop unique wireless apps, such as the GPS travel items, that become quickly indispensable, and get the pricing and marketing just right ... well, who knows?

For starters, Sweden's Ericsson is taking a "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" approach and is announcing a pre-commercial launch by the end of the year of wCDMA (or Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) products supporting 3G. Vodafone is putting pressure on Verizon Wireless (jointly owned by Verizon and Vodafone) to reconsider its previously stated preference for 3G cdma2000 1xEV in favor of wCDMA.

Roaming without rudeness
My final lesson from France: For all their supposed rudeness to Americans, I never ran into a Frenchman performing the common practice in New York, where I live, of bellowing at top volume into a cell phone on the bus, subway, or train. Note to Americans: Europeans have somehow learned to whisper into their mobile phones. Can't we?

What lessons do you think the United States can learn about wireless from other countries? Talk Back below.


You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All