Beware of the speedbumps

It is a world where the television and the computer merge; where utilities piggyback information services to each and every home and office thanks to existing access; where telecommunications companies offer integrated services; where global Internet service companies emerge to provide robust secure international Internet backbones; and where global content giants such as AOL Time Warner flourish.

It is, says UUNet, "the golden age of communications."

The company was one of a host presenting their visions of the future, or peddling new products, at the now2000 conference organised by the Australian Telecommunications Users Group and held earlier this year.

Besides UUNet's wired world, plenty of companies were demonstrating how wireless communications will develop, with a particular focus on third-generation wireless where high-speed data and multimedia can be transmitted over high-bandwidth mobile wireless networks.

According to telecommunications analyst Paul Budde, demand for mobile wireless is on the march. He predicts that this year the number of Australian mobile subscribers could grow by 20-25 per cent if there is more call charge competition. Whatever happens to call charge competition this year, by 2001 he expects the price of mobile calls to be at or below the cost of fixed wire calls. Clearly, once that happens more and more communications will be transferred to the mobile networks.

In addition to handling pure voice calls, those mobile networks are increasingly being called on for data transmissions - and eventually will also have to handle video.

Orange's view of the future, which was demonstrated to conference delegates, was of a world where wire-free communications were as simple and reliable as wireline services. In a five-year vision, the company predicted a world where individuals would be constantly connected to communications networks through wearable electronic devices, which would allow access to voice calls, the Internet and video.

The company will shortly unveil in the British market its first videophone.

Australians might also expect to be able to buy a TV phone here before the Olympics, according to Samsung Electronics. The company expects that it will team with a mobile carrier before September in order to be able to package the phone (which can be used for standard telephone conversations, but also to access free-to-air television) in a deal which would see it retail for around $400.

For about the same price, consumers might also be able to buy Samsung's watch phone, also scheduled for local release before the Olympics.

Longer term (the company is predicting another two years) it will release its third-generation telephones, which will allow people to surf the Net, download video, and - using a built-in digital camera - record and send images. This third-generation phone is also being developed with true global roaming as a goal.

Les Chapman, director of Samsung's telecommunications division, is, not surprisingly, enthusiastic about the opportunities for mobile telephony, citing statistics which show that by 2005 there will be 1 billion users of mobile phones in the world. He believes that the communications, entertainment and information package presented by the new TV phones (and the next generation of Internet/video phones) will be attractive to all sectors of the consumer market.

The electronics are out of the laboratory. But the infrastructure is still wanting.

Telecommunications carriers, which have already $US1 trillion worth of infrastructure in place the world over, admit that it will be probably at least five years, and possibly more, until they can offer the reliable, high-speed, high-bandwidth, seamless networks required to underpin such applications, at a reasonable cost.

The information infrastructure is also still in development. For a truly seamless communications environment, people will want to be able to access all those devices with an IP address in a standard way. They will want to be able to retrieve information stored on their personal computers, on corporate databases and on the Internet, again in a standard way.

Consumers might also be forgiven for wanting more information about the potential health risks associated with the electro-magnetic radiation that comes with intense mobile telephone use.

As with all technological development, there will be speedbumps along the way, but the future will prove unstoppable.

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