If you'd asked anyone ten years ago what would improve their computing experience, the answer would most likely have been a faster processor, bigger hard disk or more memory. Oh, and nicer graphics with better sound, if it's not too much trouble. These days, we've got all that. There are still respectable numbers of people strapping go-faster bits to their computers, but it's more in the spirit of custom car nuts than fundamental advances in usability. Now, everyone's dearest wish is for faster Internet connectivity.
The trouble has been that while anyone can make and sell hardware and software, it's been much harder to set up ways to access the Internet. BT has been most efficient in its inefficiency, maintaining a de facto monopoly on ADSL and ignoring any customer in an inconvenient location. Cable is for urbanites only. It's as if the PC market in the early 90s was limited to IBM and Apple, neither of whom could be bothered to sell you a computer if you lived more than a couple of miles from your nearest post office. So we've been stuck with expensive, limited and rather frustrating access while the rest of the IT world moves on at speed.
Of late, there's been a hint of relief. Third-generation mobile phone systems were going to provide universal broadband access -- shame nobody told the mobile phone companies. Wi-Fi and related ideas have got lots of people setting up rural wireless broadband companies and scrambling up masts, bypassing the BT bucolic blockade of the last mile but still stuck paying huge leased line bills. What we need is some magic device that does for connectivity what the 8086 processor in the PC architecture did for computing: a basic building block that does the job and is open to all.
The selfsame thought occurred to Intel earlier this year when it was one of several companies that revitalised the long forgotten Wimax consortium. Wimax -- Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, don't you know -- is there to promote development of 802.16, yet another set of interrelated radio networking standards. But stay awake at the back: 802.16 is to 802.11 what the M25 motorway is to the Basingstoke one way system. Designed to operate over a number of bands from 2GHz to 66GHz, 802.16 can work over 30 miles and pump data at speeds of up to 70Mbps.
Originally intended for 'last mile' fixed wireless broadband links, the standard has already grown mesh additions to let stations relay data for others, and work is underway for mobile working. This week, Intel announced it would be designing 802.16 silicon: it's not alone, and other standards espoused by the chip giant haven't always taken off, but as a statement of intent it's very significant. If 802.16 takes off, it'll change the face of broadband.