August 13, 2003

Towards the Infinite Internet

Speaking of the Future with Alex Lightman

A big part of looking ahead is trying to identify coming instances of discontinuous change.

The horse and buggy that our recent ancestors abandoned was a direct descendant of Pharoah's chariot. For thousands of years, improvements to this mode of transportation were incremental, often subtle. However, switching from the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile was anything but subtle. It was an enormous, world-transforming leap. It was a prime example of discontinuous change.

At the Speculist, we're watching for a number of coming discontinuous changes. The winner of the X Prize (along with, potentially, some of the losers) may well open up a new era of private, do-it-yourself space travel. The development of the first molecular assembler could usher in the era of true nanotechnology, in which manufactured goods are grown from seed like crops, towers rise from the earth into space, and legions of sub-microscopic machines patrol your bloodstream keeping you in perfect health. The emergence of the first strong artificial intelligence may fundamentally alter what we mean when we use the words "human" and "machine," and may in time lead to the biggest discontinuous change of all, the Technology Singularity.

While watching the horizon for coming changes, it's easy to lose sight of some of those changes that we are in the midst of. One futurist who has not done this is Alex Lightman. CEO and co-founder of Charmed Technology, Alex has his finger on the pulse of the rapid developments in wireless technology (from first to second to third generation) and the convergence of these developments with the increasing portability of ever-greater computing power. He predicts that this convergence is leading us to nothing less than a Digital Big Bang. This phenomenon will have an impact as great as or greater than any of the discontinuous changes named above, save the singularity itself. And the singularity will not be possible without the big bang.

I spoke with Alex recently about his vision of coming discontinuous change.

Alex, let's explore the idea of the digital big bang. First off, you've been credited with coining the term "4G" in reference to a kind of ultimate direction for wireless systems.

Thank you. I liked the article that referred to me as father of 4G. The recognition is not as much about the term, which is arithmetically obvious, but for advocating three things, relating to what, when and how.

What: 4G is the next and last generation of wireless communication, enabling anyone to get any information anywhere (vs. just faster transmission).

When: Starting in 2004 instead of 2010.

How: involving multiple Standards Development Organizations, and using both licensed and license-exempt spectrum If 4G turns out to be wonderful, it will be because, for the first time, many people and organizations were able to participate in its creation, not just telecom giants and their spectrum-squatting friends in the relatively tiny telecom regulating parts of national or regional government. 4G is broadband for universal access, for six billion people by 2010 or 2015, not just a few tens or hundreds of millions by 2020.

It's worth pointing out that there are 1.3 billion mobile users and sales of 107 million mobile devices in the first quarter of 2003, as a basis of comparison of the G's.

Can you briefly step us through what each of the generations of wireless communications have been, starting with 1G.

1G is analog, easy to clone, didn't roam. Amazingly, GM still uses 1G in its ONstar cars. It's very inefficient, with the fewest calls per herz of spectrum. Typically uses frequency division. There are 34 million 1G users in the world today, a number that, coincidentally is equal to the number of mobile users in Africa.


2G is digital. Harder to clone, easier to roam. If you are American, this is most likely what all the cellular phones are or will be soon. The vast majority of both people and countries use GSM. ATT's GSM service in the US offers m-Mode with email and limited web capabilities, making it more like 2.5.

World-wide, there are 847 million GSM users, 29 million 2G CDMA users, and 120 TDMA users (majority in the US).

Many people think of Japan's i-Mode as 2.5G because it offers Internet-like services. Most of the websites are hosted by NTT DoCoMo, which takes 9% of the revenue, so it's not wide open like the Internet as Americans see it. NTT DoCoMo has claimed to be the largest ISP. Email and photos are part of 2.5G. Japan has 79.5 million mobile users, nearly 70 million could be called 2.5G users.


3G is several different things to different people. In order to get spectrum allocations (which nearly always are about taking away from one group and giving to another) promises were made of 2 Mbps transmission speeds (Bosco Fernandez of Siemens once bragged to me that he was the person who made this commitment). Currently there are 14 million 3G users in Korea, using Qualcomm's cdma2000 and 9 million in Japan, mainly via KDDI's au cdma2000. Meanwhile, NTT DoCoMo, the first to offer 3G, is lagging with only 600,000 users of their W-CDMA system that is supposed to be upgrade path from GSM. Typical users get 64 to 364 Kbps on their color phones, allowing them to play games, get email, use camera and even send short music and video clips.

Some say that there are 130 million 3G users, but I find this statistic hard to believe.


Our choices for 4G are the most important technology and society agreements facing humanity today. On the one hand, there are the big cellular equipment makers and operators, who want to control, limit, and especially delay 4G until they can make back their $500 billion investment in 3G. This group says, "4G won't happen until 2010 or later, as if other people don't get to ask for this sooner. This group also makes much of transmission speeds - Japanese say 4G is 100 Mbps - even though other factors are much more important to end users.

On the other hand, there is the rest of the world (including the 99.99% of people who don't work for or own shares in these companies) who would love to get any information, anytime, anywhere, including movies, music, and television shows, as well as secure access to their own remote databases. 4G is faster in some cases - 11 Mbps is likely - but effective power management, spectral efficiency, open standards, increased spectrum for experimental uses and smaller entities, are all part of my vision for 4G.

Does the model stop there? Or will we someday get to 5G?

I have had over 1,000 people tell me they are doing 5G, and then laugh at their own joke, as if this is incredibly clever. This is why I say 4G is the next and last generation of wireless communication, because, with flexibility and openness built in, we don't need another standard. If I have a say in the process, 4G will cover several huge gaps of logic in 1G, 2G, and 3G.

First, 4G will cover both licensed and license-exempt spectrum. Isn't this an amazing oversight for 3G? Second, 4G will be protocol independent. 1-3G are all based on specific ways to divide. Respectively, frequency division, time division, and code division. 4G can and will make use of all three of these, depending on the spectrum used, and whether the priority is power efficiency or spectral efficiency. Many companies are claiming that OFDM is 4G. Orthogonal Frequency Division is spectrally efficient, but power inefficient. If you just need to send sensor data from moisture sensors the middle of Siberia, OFDM would be poor choice, but those sensors and other machine-to-machine (M2M) communications are a big part of 4G.

That said, if 4G includes my list of 20 technologies and policies, it is unlikely that we would need a new generation, which has historically meant (1) new handsets, (2) new base stations (3) new spectrum allocations and, often, auctions or government selection, (4) new transmission standards, and (5) lack of backward and forward compatibility. I think that, after 4G, one should be able to swap improved handsets and capital equipment out on an incremental, rather than universal basis. So, no 5G unless the telcos again control the process and use proprietary standards exclusively. Given that over 1 billion Internet users will want Internet-style openness, I don't think any one entity or group can control the standards.

It's been widely reported that a number of telco operators (Nextel perhaps the biggest among them) have announced plans to skip 3G altogether in favor of 4G networks. No less august a source than The Economist has lauded this move, stating that these "new networks may even be profitable." Strong words! Is the lukewarm roll-out of 3G systems creating a demand for 4G?

3G networks in Korea and Japan that use cdma2000 are doing great for their operators. If by lukewarm you mean that operators in all but a handful of other countries (Portugese like 3G for soccer/football, for instance) haven't even begun to roll out 3G. However, Nextel has no articulated vision for 4G. They just don't want to install all this equipment when the marginal benefit to consumers is so minimal that they can't make profit projections that would be consistent with Wall Street expectations. The Economist, by claiming that OFDM = 4G or Mesh Networks = 4G is not acting as journalist source but as propogandist for a very ill-considered, very limited view of 4G as "whatever is not 3G," rather than being a true breakthrough. It's not so hard to have networks be profitable. What's hard is to enable any person, anywhere, access any data including movies and television, at a price affordable to almost everyone, within the spectrum available. That's what 4G could be, and The Economist is simply using Hollywood "Good vs. Bad" comparisons based entirely on press releases of tiny companies rather than referencing anything from a standards body such as the IEEE, IETF, or ITU-T.

When these operators say they're going to 4G, are they talking about the same set of capabilities that you had in mind when you came up with the term?

Absolutely not! NTT DoCoMo, stung by the fact that their relatively tiny rival KDDI has over 15 times the 3G subscribers, is moving up the date for 4G, and lowering the standards, by a year every month or so. Two years ago, the Japanese government said it would have trials of 4G, at 100 Mbps, in 2008. At the current rate of spin doctoring, we will soon be told that patches and bug fixes for W-CDMA are 4G, so this is not at all what I'm talking about. OFDM is one of only twenty technologies for 4G, not the sole technology, or you could say 4G is there today. Mesh Networks says that their "multihop routing" is 4G (Google them and see for yourself). Is there any other kind of routing besides multihop?

As the author of the first book on 4G, I have, for years, advocated a very broad and ambitious agenda for 4G. I think it's irresponsible for companies to claim that any technology or suite of technologies is more than simply a fraction of what will be needed to enable anyone, anywhere, to get any information at an affordable cost in the near future. For me the litmus test is IPv6. If you don't have IPv6, you can't have end to end connectivity for billions, or tens of billions of end users and sensors. Anyone who says that have 4G without using IPv6 is not really talking about 4G. 3G, or even EDGE (2.5G) with IPv6 could be vastly more successful, but some people don't get smarter even after losing hundreds of billions of dollars. Not all entities learn from their mistakes.

In your book, you warn that the U.S. is not poised to take a leadership role in the global implementation of 4G. You provide a possible scenario in which China takes the lead. In the time since the book was published, have the relative positions of the U.S. and China (and any other players) changed at all? And what does it mean to the U.S if we don't take the lead in 4G?

The US is indeed poised to take a leadership role. I say that several times, and I say it could be catalyzed simply by an Apollo moon mission-style speech by President Bush, saying that leadership in 4G is a goal of the United States. Unfortunately, that speech has already been given, years ago, by the Prime Ministers of Japan and Korea, and it's only a matter of months before the same speech is given in China, Sweden, Finland, Germany, and Belgium. In the year and a half since the book was published, China has continued to astonish those who are awake to civilizational shifts of power through knowledge by signing up so many mobile users.

As of June 2003, in China there were 234.7 million mobile users vs. 237.6 fixed line users. Sooner or later, China will turn to IPv6, enabling them to get all the IP addresses they can't have now. (Interestingly, the number of IP address China would need is almost exactly twice as much as the unallocated IPv4 addresses, since they would need 2 IPv6 addresses for every mobile device, one for the handset and one for the agent that forwarded messages even as different networks are used).

The US, by comparison, has 140 million users. Not only will China soon have twice as many 2G users, but it's conceivable that China will have many times this number of 3G users, especially if their home-grown 3G standard TD-SCDMA takes off and they use IPv6.

You've been a leading advocate of the new version 6 of the Internet Protocol. Why is this important?

Americans invented the Internet and, Oklahoma Land Rush-style, grabbed about 70% of the IPv4 addresses (I love how we blame Canada by saying North Americans have 73% of IPv4 addresses!). There are six billion people out in the world, and soon there will be tens of billions of Internet-addressable devices. With IPv6, we can have an ever smarter world that has an exponentially increasing number of feedback loops as well as 4G. Without IPv4 we simply build NAT after NAT, the equivalent of turning a beautiful stadium in which big things can be happen, and everyone can directly see, into a squatters town with barbed wire around every little hovel. IPv4 is the ugly American's dream: a world that can't really progress without US involvement. IPv6 is the single most important transition the human race will ever take, because it clears the path for everyone on earth to communicate, end to end, with every other human, as well as with trillions of sensors.

Let's talk a little about wearable computers. As co-founder and CEO of Charmed Technology, you're a pioneer in this field. How have people begun to use wearable computers?

There are several distinctions to make. First is discrete or occasional use vs. continuous use. Occasional users are primarily in warehouses, repairing, assembling, or performing systems administration in the broadest sense, with experimental use on soldiers, sailors, aviators, people with dyslexia, and those with vision or other sensory impairments.

For continuous wearables users, I think of borgs. (This usage, which originated on Star Trek and was popularized by MIT Media Lab, has caught on). Three types have emerged — text borgs, sound borgs and video borgs — with others (TV borgs, game borgs, security borgs) soon to follow. Achetypal examples of these: Thad Starner, Ass't Prof. at Georgia Tech, has a CharmIT with an 80 GB drive that has digital copies of everything he's read. He even saws off the spines of books on a vice grip, OCR's them, and saves them. The really interesting thing is that he uses Remembrance Agent software that compares new text strings with the entire data base, a sort of self-Google of every phrase or so, with ranking.

Sound borg Greg Priest-Dorman, inventor of the CharmIT, has dyslexia and has configured his wearable to read him his email at 3 to 5 x normal speaking rates so he can be a great sysadmin at Vassar College.

Video borg Steve Mann, ass't prof. at the U of Toronto, transmits and stores hundreds of hours of his walks around town and claims to choose vegetables with his wife's teleadvice.

Where do you see this market going? Why will we be wearing computers in the future?

I see wearable shrinking in size and cost even as mobile phones and PDAs bulk up in terms of processing power, storage, memory, and full function keyboards until they almost meet each other in the middle, with a 2 GHz, 1 Terabyte system that is like a fat mobile phone with 12 - 24 hour talk time and a Head Up Display with augmented reality as the interface.

We will wear computers in the future because knowledge is the fuel for both power and potential relationships with powerful people, and people will both want to grow more powerful (by knowing who, what, where, when) and to keep track of thousands of acquaintances, which will take lots and lots of reminders based on ques like facial recognition. Litigation and security concerns will also cause us to record more of our activities, in the personal liability arms race.

Can you make a prediction about the ubiquity of wearable computers — when will we all be wearing computers around?

That relates to whether my vision of 4G or the telco's opposition to early 4G eventually becomes the way of the land. No technology is completely ubiquitous, but I can offer an estimate from my friend Paul Shepherd. He reckons it took from 1983 to 2003 to get from thousands to over a billion mobile phone users, and estimates it will take from 2003 to 2023 to get from thousands to over 1 billion wearable computer users. Of course, the definition of wearable computers, like 4G, will be subject to many claims, hence the need for ITU-T anticipatory regulation to chose standards for what we call things.

A while back you did a series of fashion shows to give an idea of where wearable computing is heading. How were these received?

The Brave New Unwired World Technology Fashion shows were done in countries to tremendous interest. Charmed was covered by the media over 1,000 times, and I was interviewed on television over 700 times. Over 50,000 people saw the 100 shows live, with publicity valued at over $100 million in advertising equivalent. People thought they were wonderful shows.

Are you planning any more?

I co-produced a show with Isa Gordon, the artist who performs as a cyborg two weeks ago at SIGGRAPH for almost 900 people that lasted nearly an hour. People love it, especially the luminous clothing. Isa was very brave, reading a seven page text on a HUD with a CharmIT and a fingermouse, the first time anyone has ever done something like that for a big audience. Charmed might soon receive a patent for aspects of shows and that might spark a new tour, but not before we build and launch our badge business.

So we have 4G networks, wearabale computers, and IPv6. Few of us have these items on our radar. What other pieces must come into play (obscure or otherwise) in order for the digital big bang to occur?

That's a very big question, one that literally takes three books to cover. There are 300 pages in my book Brave New Unwired World related to this. However, at an ITU-T meeting 69 people from standards-related organizations and ITU staffers put together a list of 25 important technologies, including software radios, augmented reality, and 4G.

So when do you think the big bang will get here?

We are living in the big bang right now. 1.3 billion mobile phone users and 660 million Internet users, vs. 750 million cars, trucks and buses. The digital big bang is the most important experience of this era in human history, though it will take a future Alvin Toffler or Edward Gibbons to point it out in manner that most educated people will understand. Only, by then, the definition of 'educated person' will have gone from millions of people to billions of people! What a fun, complex world that will be to live in.

Posted by Phil at August 13, 2003 08:46 AM | TrackBack

We all have to sign onto 20 separate technologies and policies for the 4G utopia to come to pass? Surely it's not so complex.

Posted by: mitch at September 4, 2003 04:26 AM
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