The Negroponte Switch

In his book Being Digital, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte predicts that those signals traditionally carried over wires (e.g., telephone) would switch with those carried over the air (e.g., television.)

This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. Obviously television is not something you watch on the move, so why does it need to be wireless? It might make sense if we lacked infrastructure, but that’s hardly the case in the US. If one wanted to shut down the TV transmitters, it could be done with an easy transition: the cable industry is now so well developed that one source I consulted had coax “passing” 97% of American homes. (As is, about 60% of households get cable and another 18% have a DBS system.)

At the same time, the cellular market is becoming even bigger each year. Consider the case of Taiwan, which this year became the country with the highest cellular phone penetration. Its usage rate? 100.7% (That compares to 57.7% landline penetration.)

Some people look at those figures and conclude Negroponte is wrong, and all will be wireless in the future. They point to the fact that many developing economies, notably those in Africa, skip the wires altogether in favor of quickly bringing a wireless system online.

Maybe, but I am still profoundly suspicious of wireless infrastructure. I’ve never found a cellular phone that is as reliable as a wired phone, never mind the significant difference in quality. I’ve never seen a fast wireless Internet connection (though my father’s, at ~512Kbps, isn’t bad.) I still have eavesdropping concerns.

I’m unshaken in my belief that only fiber to the home will be able to quench what I expect to be a voracious need for greater bandwidth in the future. Wireless certainly has its place as a mobile technology, but the industry is going to have to do a lot better to sell me on it as a primary communications mode.

Update [13:20]: Interesting. The FCC examines giving some TV spectrum over to wireless. Is this the first step?

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