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CICIORA’S CORNER: Wireless

Tue, 09/30/2008 - 8:10pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

I have had a “smart phone” with the portable form of Windows for a couple of years. It was one of the dumbest pieces of technology I’ve ever owned (not necessarily because of the Windows). It came highly recommended, but I couldn’t get much help in getting it to do what was promised. It was even frustrating to use as a phone. The store where I bought it Walter S. Ciciorawas very unhelpful. I kept promising myself that I would replace it with something more usable. But time has a way of slipping by with other, more urgent, things to do, and so I just put up with it. The “urgent” interferes with the “important.” That’s all changed now.

A friend who accompanied my wife and I on a group trip to Turkey and Greece in 2007 got a phone for that trip that he could use both here and in Europe. I asked him about his experiences and he claimed another store had very helpful sales people. Since we had another trip to Europe earlier this year, and since I wanted the family (and the person who was taking care of my wife’s horses) to be able to get in touch with us if there was an emergency, I took my friend’s advice. The salesman at the recommended store told me they had only one phone that would be usable in Europe, a BlackBerry “World Edition.”

I had to get a card to allow the phone to work in Europe. Fortunately, the BlackBerry is much easier to use (and, importantly, to learn to use) than the previous phone. I started reading the electronic directions (things don’t usually come with printed instructions anymore). I found that the super-helpful agent had left the phone locked in the U.S. mode. I would not have had a chance to try the European mode had I not uncovered that error. After making that change, I got an error message telling me that there was no card present for the European system. I guessed correctly; it was installed backwards. So much for competent service! Nonetheless, I am much happier with this phone.

Many of our colleagues have never known a professional life without the Web, e-mail and search engines. I come from way before any of that; but yet I’m not so old that I haven’t adopted these tools. Having seen life with and without these wonders, I can be amazed and appreciate them for what they are. I’ve done the computer Bulletin Boards with monochrome text. Later came limited graphics and dial-up modems running 300 baud. When we got to 1,200 baud it was near magic. High-speed cable modems seemed like a new world. Wi-Fi added tremendous new freedom. When I visit my children’s homes, I have the codes in my laptop to be able to use their Wi-Fi for my e-mail fix. Now even the airport lounge has “free” Wi-Fi. But until I got my BlackBerry, I had to use dial-up when visiting my mother-in-law or other older relatives.

Now the real magic is the e-mail, Web browsing and access to search engines on my cell phone. It is a powerful capability to have with me almost all of the time.

What does this mean for cable? Fortunately, my local cable system is responding quite well. It has had a local news and weather channel for some time. The motto is “know before you go.” A check of the weather forecast, a look at the weather radar scan and a traffic report can result in avoiding frustrating delays. They have gone an important step further. This information is now available with a cell phone, even without Web access. So when there is a quick rush out of the house, the passenger in the car can still check up on this useful information if the family subscribes to cable. This is a real value add.

The cable company is going the next step. It is introducing WiMAX in its coverage areas. This is promised to be free to its cable subscribers. That will be a powerful anti-churn technique. Access to the cable company’s homepage will be enjoyed almost anywhere: train stations, restaurants, waiting rooms, and in between.

Many years ago when I was a vice president of technology for a major cable operator, the CEO asked if there was a way to make cable portable; i.e. “wireless.” At the time, that seemed impossible. In just a few decades, everything has changed. Not only is it possible, cable operators are making it happen. Set your search engine to “Clearwire.”

But not all is perfect. There is still a fly or two in the ointment. For example, my BlackBerry cellphone has a built-in GPS receiver. However, it is limited to just emergency use. If I want to use it with the map-drawing software that comes installed, I have to pay an extra $10 per month. Now, that’s to use hardware I’ve already paid for and own. What a goofy idea. It’s like cable used to do with remote control fees.

wciciora@ieee.org

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