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Frontline Panel

Lead By: Derek Woodgate and Wayne Pethrick of The Futures Lab

June 16, 2003, 6 p.m.


  • Dr. Sunghyun Cho-Samsung
  • Honoria Starbuck-artist
  • Randy Baker- Tuanis Technology
  • Alex Cavalli- Deputy Director IC2
  • Eliza Evans- IC2
  • Jon Lebkowsky- IC2
  • Michael Kuhn
  • Jim Keeler- Wayport
  • Mike Vollman- Rocksteady
  • Dr. Robert Heath- UT engineering

The session was divided into four segments: warm-up exercises, questions, scenarios, and a group activity. To begin, Derek and Wayne posed several questions to get the panel into a mode of forward thinking about how wireless will be five to ten years from now. When asked to "recollect" something remembered from the year 2007, panelists offered many enthusiastic visions of wireless devices, such as projective sunglasses, based on the assumption that wireless will proliferate. Also, for one panelist, the era would be characterized by a new set of corporate players and wireless leaders.

In a similar thread, panelists were asked why people should use wireless in the year 2010. Expectations of increased mobility, freedom, and efficiency were the themes of the panel's responses. Panelists specifically mentioned lower costs, no wires to string, convenience, the ability to fill in time gaps with a technological based activity, as well as the ability to remotely check security systems and receive instant information related to possible terrorist attacks.

Following the opening exercises, Wayne and Derek introduced more directed questions to invite discussion. Panelists were asked, "What technology is needed for all of this? What needs to happen first (before we reach the wireless levels just mentioned)?" This question sparked a discussion about the role of licensed and unlicensed spectrum and how each affects the development of wireless. It was noted that vendors offering services in unlicensed spectrum have not made any money, but also that a lot of auctioned spectrum is wasted and under-utilized. In general, it was agreed that a new model of spectrum management is needed, especially with concerns about interference, although cognitive radio is a possible viable alternative to some of the problems. Furthermore, consumers many have different wants in the year 2010 and some of the current problems with wireless may not be an issue then.

Panelists were next asked what a wireless business entity will look like seven years from now. A few panelists mentioned that the life of batteries or an ability to recharge them must keep pace with wireless growth in order for devices to truly be portable. The role of media conglomerates in the wireless landscape was also discussed, with some panelists saying that the media will control the field and that the FCC will serve as a centralized power.

The changes in society after wireless proliferates were the topic of the next question. One panelist mentioned the impending increase in networking, that people will have interactions with different kinds of people and devices that we have not anticipated. Additionally, as people in Finland already do, individuals will be able to locate and meet people with similar interests who are in the same proximity at the same time. Social standards and manners were mentioned, which includes how people reconcile the privacy of a cell phone conversation with the public environment they may be in. Also, because of cell phones families can remain more connected to one another, particularly with the use of picture-taking phones. Finally, the ability of humans to absorb an accelerated rate of change was questioned, is there a breaking point or can humans adapt quick enough? One panelist then suggested a possible Darwin scenario where non-adopters are selected out of popular society.

Panelists next gave suggestions about what outside fields that wireless would influence, which included both industries and aspects of life. Content, such as entertainment, games, fashion, and stories, is one area that wireless could alter. Advertisers, who would benefit from enhanced abilities to collect consumer information, could create more targeted ads. In general, companies will see an increase in efficiency, with the possibility for more free time for individuals. The prospect of additional leisure time courtesy of technology sparked a discussion about the ever-blurring difference between home and work. The panel drew the conclusion that individuals will have to deal with choices about leisure time on their own because they can no longer rely on physical or technological barriers to divide their time and space.

The next segment of the evening consisted of the proposal of four scenarios and subsequent discussions about the possibilities and implications of the ideas. Panelists viewed a visual representation of each of the ideas. The first scenario presented the idea of a "wireless quilt," and asked what the quilted world would look like. The idea surrounding quilts was linked with images of networks and layers, which could be social, technological or service based. Quilts were also seen as troublesome because they are not user driven and they present challenges of universal roaming and billing. Additionally, everyone contributes to the quilt, but there is a need for layout and aesthetic guidelines; no single person can control the quilt, but it can be guided. The role of the consumer demands and what they are willing to pay was discussed, as well as the possibility that a wireless quilt could take on a public good quality and not be a moneymaker. In the end, as one panelist suggested, the user does not want to be involved in the quilt. The user just wants a transparent network that is usable, reliable, and interoperable.

The second scenario introduced the idea of the "always on" world. This prompt re-introduced discussions about the responsibilities of individuals to know when to turn devices off and enjoy leisure time. One panelist suggested that interruptions at home were originally introduced with the wireline phone, while another panelist pointed out that wireless devices allow for "always on" to be everywhere, not just at home. For many individuals, there will be a desire not to be connected, at least for certain periods of time. As a result of the ability to constantly contact someone, society will have to address expectations of response times for messages, how to deal with interruptions, and how to signal to others a "do not disturb" message. One panelist suggested that availability will be linked to status; the less available someone is, the higher their status. In this segment, panelists also addressed issues of asynchronous communication and decentralization. For some panelists, the hub of activities will b ecome their home, while others say the hub "moves with me."

The next scenario asked how the unwired home will differ from the present world. Panelists mentioned the ability for home appliances to communicate, although this will seem less convenient because devices still must be plugged into the wall unless advances are made in battery life. One panelist also brought up the potential for new applications for wireless that are not just browser based, but use a more ad hoc network.

The final scenario asked panelists whether wireless businesses will be consolidated or decentralized and how services will be offered. Aggregated services and consolidation of payment was suggested. The privacy versus convenience debate was also brought up because a single company providing many services would know a lot about its customers; but despite this consumers tend to favor convenience over privacy for their services. One panelist suggested that services will be offered either on a wholesale basis or as brand names. Wayne also asked how all of these ideas would work with the wireless quilt. One panelist said that interior consolidation does not matter for the consumer, they just want cheap prices and seamlessness.

To wrap up the evening, the panel was divided into two groups and asked how everything that was discussed applies to Austin. The groups made charts showing where Austin fits into the wireless future. The first group divided the wireless economy into four segments. The first segment, infrastructure, was described as an area where Austin lacks but will be important for wireless. The second segment was devices, and although some chip companies are located in the area many still outsource leaving room for improvement in Austin. Content was the third segment, and Austin was seen as a potential leader in this area because of the high levels of creativity within the city. The final segment was services, another area where Austin could successfully expand. The group also added that the combination of UT, the technology consortiums, and the general entrepreneurial dynamic in the city are a formula for wireless success.

The second group noted that Austin will not be a manufacturing center or the destination for significant corporate migration. Like the previous group, the high levels of creativity among Austinites was mentioned, as well as the fact that already large segments of the population are unwired. The group also pointed out that Austin is a city of early adopters eager to try out new products, and there is a great potential for convergence of technologies, as well as the development for niche markets.

Wayne closed out the session by asking where the backbone for wireless is and where people should invest. Several panelists mentioned that intangibles are important, that applications and relationships with content and knowledge are what is important rather than the making of physical products. The need for coordination and a view toward the future; things that UT, the Chamber of Commerce, the City, and venture capitalists have not exploited in the past, will be key for a successful wireless future in Austin.