Gates and Kennard headline Wireless 2000

Microsoft chairman officially launches MSN Mobile 2.0 while announcing deals with Qualcomm, Nextel and AirTouch Cellular

"The Global Perspective" was the theme of the keynote speeches at the CTIA Wireless 2000 show in New Orleans on Monday, which could be loosely translated as "When it comes to wireless technology, the rest of the world is kicking the United States in the pants".

The session, which also featured Microsoft chairman Bill Gates officially launching MSN Mobile 2.0, was kicked off by William Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Kennard issued a warning that demand for spectrum in the US is outstripping supply, and the industry can't afford to be short-sighted about that. "Spectrum scarcity is the ultimate spectrum cap," he told a packed auditorium. "Spectrum management has got to be at the top of your public policy agendas."

To that end, Kennard said the FCC is convening a forum on the issue of spectrum availability. His hope is to build a Web site of businesses that are selling spectrum and companies looking to buy it. Kennard said that anyone whose business includes wireless access should pay attention to upcoming FCC auctions, such as one this spring in which US cable channels 60 to 69 will be auctioned off. There may also be private auctions paralleling those of the FCC, he said.

Kennard added that spectrum sharing is going to be more of a problem as everyone in the computer industry attempts to go wireless. "We're seeing a disturbing amount of interference," he said, adding that the FCC is telling the government to take heed and provide funding to deal with potential network problems. "Wireless must no longer be defined by its relationship to the wireline network," he said.

Kennard was followed by Keiji Tachikawa, president of NTT Mobile Communications Network, who took the stage to discuss the Tokyo company's recent success in the wireless data business. NTT has 28 million voice subscribers, and in just the past year, 4.5 million of them have purchased wireless data service on the company's iMode packet network, which sits on top of a circuit-switched network. The network runs at about 9.6 baud currently.

Loosely translating yen into pounds, customers pay about £1.80 per month for base service. They then pay on a per-packet basis for data, while another fee is added to that for increased voice usage. (The majority of customers also pay an additional 60p a month to have a new cartoon character appear on their phone screens every day). The average monthly total fee is about £15, which is lower than many flat-rate plans in existence.

The iMode service plans to adopt the pending 3G wireless network standard next year, Tachikawa said. With potential speeds of up to 384kB/sec, offerings such as video services on mobile phones are more than likely, he added.

Next up was Chris Gent, chief executive of Britain's red-hot Vodafone Airtouch (quote: VOD), which, with several major alliances in the past few months (including its acquisition of Mannesmann), is arguably the largest wireless network service provider in the world. While Tachikawa concentrated on his own company's success, Gent talked more about US shortcomings.

Aside from there being too many competing networks in the US, compared to the pervasive GSM standard in Europe, Gent said it doesn't offer enough in the way of mobile phone services where only the calling party pays. At present, most mobile phone customers pay for incoming calls, so they tend to leave them switched off a lot. "When people leave their phones on all the time, because they don't have to pay for incoming calls, it becomes an integral part of their lives," Gent said. "That hasn't happened in America."

In terms of standards, he said, the US may be in trouble there, even after everyone begins to adopt 3G. (3G is supposed to be a combination of several network standards.) While that should make things more uniform in the US, it may not make things globally uniform because "even now, we're looking at a 3G US and a 3G rest of the world," Gent added.

Vodafone, for its part, plans to move up to GPRS later this year and, eventually, 3G next year.

Gent was followed by AT&T president John Zeglis. The company's wireless unit, of which Zeglis is chairman and chief executive, is about to have its IPO, and is therefore in a "quiet period". However, Zeglis made a point of saying, "Well, we'll show him", in response to Gent's discussion.

A CTIA official asked Zeglis about AT&T's "Project Angel", which has to do with fixed wireless access. Zeglis couldn't say anything specific except that AT&T definitely is looking at fixed wireless services and those that would combine GPS and the Internet "for people who don't know where they are, but have to know if it's going to rain right over their heads, wherever they are, and how they're going to get wherever they're going".

Bill Gates took the stage and promptly shifted "The Global Perspective" over to "The Microsoft Perspective". (In his defense, it could be argued that he considers them interchangeable.)

He said that new features in MSN Mobile 2.0, which will be available in April, include email notifications and two-way service. He also showcased a Compact Flash card that runs on Bluetooth and will enable users to transfer data from one device to another, and the new corporate wireless access service from Wireless Knowledge, the joint venture between Microsoft and Qualcomm.

In addition, Gates announced an agreement with Nextel Communications and AirTouch Cellular to offer MSN Mobile 2.0. Microsoft has also made new agreements with WebLink Wireless and Totally Free Paging to offer an enhanced, one-way version of MSN Mobile notifications.

Turning to the new Windows 2000 operating system, Gates showed how various features -- such as one that enables users to organise their email according to priority -- will be useful to wireless users who are pressed for time when dialling into their corporate data. "The basic idea of the user in control is super important," he said.

Screen readability is also going to be critical, said Gates, who tossed out a prediction that should send chills up the spines of book lovers everywhere: "E-books will be like e-music," he said. "People will wonder why they were ever in any other form."

Take me to the Wireless 2000 roundup.

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