When wireless hot-spots started springing up in cities circa 2001, this shift had a dramatic impact on the way people interacted. Released from their wireline chains, people were no longer constrained to use their computers in isolation.
Now two new trends are set to make waves again in the wireless realm.
The first new trend: The skies will be open to wireless broadband later this year.
In May 2006, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will auction airwave spectrum to allow broadband Wi-Fi on airplanes flying over North America on a ground-to-air network.
This will open new vistas of consumer and business services for travelers – and new revenue streams for telecom, VoIP and other providers. Many players are jockeying for position, notably telecommunications giant Verizon, which has announced it plans to bid for the licence.
But many other players, not just big telcos, may also try to get a piece of the action, says Greg Welch, CEO of GlobalTouch Telecom Inc., a VoIP provider based in Los Angeles, Calif.
"This could be a telecom play only, but other providers of ancillary services may also be interested," he says. "Content providers like Google or Yahoo may get involved, and even a company like Microsoft may want to get into this space and get control. With broadband access, these companies can push their search engines, portals and content."
But the auction raises many questions, he says. Will whoever wins the licence try to control the services or content pushed down? Will other regulatory bodies such as the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) restrict how or when travelers can use broadband services? Will airlines themselves make a play to offer services, as Boeing did in 2005 when it started offering satellite-based Internet services?
These are the types of questions that will be answered as the playing field becomes clearer in the future, he says. The opportunities will be exciting for service providers. "This expands competition immensely. Everything's starting to sing together: IPTV, VoIP, different streaming videos, sites and portals. All these services will be wrapped up in a big bow and provided to passengers on airplanes," says Welch.
Rich Tehrani, president of Technology Marketing Corp. (TMC), a publisher of communications industry news based in Norwalk, Conn., believes airplane Wi-Fi will encourage demand for airline travel, and will have a dramatic impact on business travel.
Tehrani points out that business travelers are currently cut off for large blocks of time from telephone, e-mail and corporate networks. With VoIP, phone calls will no longer be restricted, as VoIP calls don't cause the interference with navigation systems that cell phones do. "This will unleash all that time wasted on flights," he says. "This means wherever business people are, they will be able to communicate in the air with their clients and staff."