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Next Monday (November 13th 2000) the auctions begin for the four UMTS third generation mobile wireless licences to be sold in Switzerland. Yesterday evening there was a meeting about the subject organised by ISOCGVA, the Geneva Chapter of the Internet Society.

Connected mobility - Making sense of next generation mobile wireless communications

A lot has been said about the third generation mobile wireless system based on the IMT-2000 standards from the ITU. Much of what is said is about big numbers: the phenomenal cost of licences, the number of people using portable phones, the expected growth rate ... Such big numbers seem to have a hypnotic effect, as if they alone expressed something significant. Effectively, one of the techniques of hypnosis consists of quoting lists of incomprehensible numbers. Very little is said about what we are going to do with this system.

Once again video-on-demand comes to the rescue of purveyors of broadband services as one of the applications that is supposed to encourage millions of people to fork out regularly to have these new devices. Do we really want to carry our televisions around on our backs as an inescapable burden drip feeding our brains all our waking hours with sitcoms and talk shows?

The discourse about potential applications only becomes interesting when it is directly related to mobility. At yesterday evening's conference, Marco Rastaldi of Pictet mentioned applications linked to knowing where the person is. He talked of those vendors trying to sell information about roadside radar traps. Such a service is only interesting when you are warned as you approach such a trap, said he.

Stepping back a moment, it seems incredible that so much effort and money is being put into a system that nobody clearly knows what it will be used for. As an early adopter myself, if I consult my gut feeling, I'd say that two related factors are at play in the success of mobile telephony and the integration of data services:

1. The idea of mobility. That we can move around and continue to telephone or write or consult or whatever it is we do.

2. That we remain connected. That we can attain others and be attained by them and that we can access our data environment at any time from any place.

There is naturally a down side to all of this. But rather than evoke that, let's talk more generally about the impact of connectedness and mobility on society. This is a subject that most speakers about UMTS pass over in silence. Yesterday evening, nobody even mentioned it. What exactly does it imply for society and for us as individuals that we can move around and yet still remain connected electronically to the network both of people and machines?

I have written a lot about flow and rhythm these last few days in There is a tendency for our activities to flow out and erase hitherto boundaries, robbing us of that structure which makes sense of our lives. Clearly, connected mobility, if I can use such an expression, implies that we are always potentially connected whenever and wherever we are. This can be a considerable advantage if you are forced to travel frequently. I would certainly appreciate it. In the extreme case - and there is a tendency to extremes - there is no haven within which you cannot be attained, from which you cannot access the virtual world of work and play. The one-time joke that we will soon have to introduce a new human right - the right to be disconnected - takes on somewhat sinister proportions. Imagine hotels and restaurants vaunting their connection-free rooms rather like they do now for those that are non-smoker.

Clearly a number of factors are driving this move to connected mobility, not the least of which is the will to extend the market place to the ultimate limits of human activity. But I'd like to evoke a possibly more obscure, but none the less fundamental reason. Deep down inside of themselves, human beings long for a pristine connectedness that consists of being at one with the whole universe. That is where we come from and it is there that we will all return. Instinctively we feel the attraction of that home. I suspect that our desire to be connected finds a material voice in connected mobility. However, depending on connected mobility will not bring the connectedness we secretly yearn for. Why? Because that "oneness" is born out of silence and stillness. Whereas connected mobility tends to produce noise and perpetual movement. Not that I want to bedevil technology; much depends on our intentions and how these get expressed in our attitudes

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: November 9th, 2000 - Last up-dated: November 9th, 2000