It used to be that phases like 'the future is mobile,' or 'ubiquitous access' conveyed visions of hope, glory and even scenes of utopian bliss where everyone is connected, everywhere and all of the time.
In many ways, those visions are fast becoming reality for many of us living in the developed world, especially markets such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where wireless access is indeed ubiquitous and plentiful.
A perfect example of the mobile future is the Netvigator Everywhere offering rolled out by PCCW, which combines 3G, 3.5G HSDPA with Wi-Fi to cover the entire the city. The service detects and automatically selects the best connection for accessing the internet and will hand over between networks. PCCW also abates any concerns on the high costs of mobile data by offering the service with unlimited access for a flat fee option.
Netvigator Everywhere is more expensive than the operator's standard fixed broadband packages, even including a subscription to PCCW's wireless LAN-only mobility service. Then again, you'd expect to pay a little more for the convenience of being able to be online from anywhere in the city and at 'relatively' broadband speeds.
The problem is obviously no longer about access. In Hong Kong alone, there are no less than six 2G networks, four 3G networks and multiple (including private hotspots) wireless LAN access points along busy thorough fares and inside commercial and residential complexes.
Turn on your wireless LAN sensor anywhere in the city and you're bound to see half a dozen networks to choose from, although most will be private secure networks.
And those numbers don't show the fact that the 2G networks are found on both the 900-MHz and 1800-MHz frequencies and the different Wi-Fi variations of 'a', 'b', 'g' and now 'i' in deployment today.
Globally, the number of wireless platforms in commercial deployment is staggering. Mobile networks are also found on the 450-MHz, 800-MHz, 850-MHz and 1900-MHz ranges, and also comes in the form of CDMA and its many manifestations. And then there is Bluetooth, infrared and satellite.
The reality is that we are surrounded by wireless signals. It is a matter of getting access to them, which in turn depends on the type of device you have and the service operator and plan you subscribe to. No other form of infrastructure has this much redundant deployment.
Does innovation equal inefficient
And it is only going to get better, or worst, depending how you look at.
On the horizon is Wimax, TD-SCDMA, HSPA+, 4G and others, all requiring different access devices, offering different applications, and likely deployed by different operators in different markets across the globe.
The social and economic benefits of such healthy competition in both the equipment supplier and operator sectors are easily evident. Market competition and technology differentiation drive innovation and investment, bringing prices down and improving the value proposition of services, which in turn drives consumer adoption. Commercially, the wireless industry is perhaps the most dynamic among all other industries, with the exception of perhaps Web 2.0.
But is there such a thing as too much innovation and investment‾ Do we really need the ability to access five networks on a single device, like most 3G handsets on the market today‾ Do we really need five networks in the first place‾ Is the price of innovation, inefficiency‾
More importantly, can the wireless industry continue to prosper in today's environment, where the price of oil is closing in on $100 a barrel and climate change is a critical issue for governments across the globe‾