Ask Donna

This month`s column is a little different, which is fitting for the first one of the new millennium. So I`ve dusted off my crystal ball and taken a look into the future. My thoughts...

Donna Ballast

This month`s column is a little different, which is fitting for the first one of the new millennium. So I`ve dusted off my crystal ball and taken a look into the future. My thoughts...

Where does telecommunications end and the Internet start? Why do we care? It all requires infrastructure, and we are in the infrastructure business.

Exponential growth in Internet traffic began in 1994 with the invention of the World Wide Web, which permitted the transfer of graphics and text on the same file. In 2000, the Internet will account for half of all bandwidth used in the world, by the year 2003 more than 90%, and by 2008 more than 99%.

History books will compare the birth of the Web in 1994 with other momentous events, such as the first printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1453, Columbus discovering the Americas in 1492, and the atomic bomb in 1945. Like those events, the Web has changed the world forever.

The high-tech home

Today`s Internet connects people to their world and turns every home into the world`s largest library. It promises to bring to every man, woman, and child on this planet every conceivable product and service. Hence, our never-ending need for speed and insatiable thirst for bandwidth are now following us home from the office. More of us are looking to establish local area networks in our homes to give other family members Internet access from their computers more of the time. All it takes is money and infrastructure.

Within the next three to five years, there will be tremendous growth in structured cabling within the residential market. The primary driving force will be Internet access, but integrated home automation, control, and security also see an increased demand.

I predict that we will continue to yield more control of the objects in our lives to computers. Today, you can order computer-controlled home-automation systems that can feed your dog, detect cars in your driveway, open and close your drapes, adjust the lights in your home theater, water your lawn, and heat your swimming pool. As technology-savvy homebuyers demand these services, the cabling infrastructure to support them will become a standard feature in new construction. But not everyone will live in a newly constructed, well-cabled residence. Thus, there will be great business opportunities for retrofit cabling on existing homes.

Other goodies that will become commonplace on home networks are cable modems with two-way access, data satellite connections, and computer-ready television sets. Look for convergence, or the blurring of the boundaries, among your gadgets. You will be watching movies on your laptop, receiving e-mail on your cell phone, and entertaining your children or grandchildren with toys that interact with their TV.

Imagine watching the Super Bowl while surfing the Web for statistics in split screen on your computer-ready television without having your daughter complain that she needs "the net" connection to finish her homework.

Forget spectrum availability, limited bandwidth, and error rate. The real problem in wireless today is the tradeoff between available high-quality bandwidth and the cost of the infrastructure. If the cells shrink, thereby increasing capacity and available bandwidth and decreasing error rate, then the infrastructure costs will increase. Or we could look toward new, low-cost access points.

Most telecommunications service providers position themselves in today`s market as value-added providers of information. But they are no different from the electrical, water, or sewer services, or any other utility competing for the right to push stuff through a pipe. Telecommunications service providers need to address how they are going to introduce new infrastructure to support low-cost mobile access to new services. In the future, telecommunications service providers will be measured by a single metric: dollars per bit per second.

The changing world of work

Work is not someplace you go; it is something you do where you are. Today, there are desktop workers and there are mobile workers. Actually, most workers are mobile now. In a typical office environment, workers are away from their desks about 50% of the time; it is just that their computers and telephones are tethers. In the future, there will only be mobile workers using either wireless or cordless mobile communicators. Makes a lot more sense than voice-mail tag.

Telework, or telecommuting, as it is sometimes called, most often refers to corporate employees working at home or elsewhere away from the office. But that is only one form of telework. The same technology and the same worker values that create interest in corporate telework are creating interest in the SOHO (small office/home office). The convergence of voice, video, and data technology and the growth of wireless networks are making PCs ever more indispensable. Give entrepreneurs a cell phone and laptop and they are in business immediately. With phones plugged into computers, these entrepreneurs will have their own automated personal assistants responding to incoming voice and data messages.

Soon, lightweight communicators outfitted with high-resolution screens--which can be embedded in everything from wristwatches to palm-held units--will be connected to a series of low-orbit satellites enabling us to talk, send and receive e-mail, or take part in videoconferences anytime, anywhere. These communicators will replace the key functions of our computer.

Personal telecom: "Just Wear It"

This evening, when you go home, your family dog will greet you. He knows you. He knows what you look like and how you smell, and he will allow you into his house because he knows you. Wouldn`t it be great if your computer would do the same thing? But computer/human interaction today is "computercentric"-- focused on the computer. Computers "know" very little about their environment. They don`t know where they are or who their user is or even if their user is still there. Computers of the future will be able to sense their environment, know their user, and be able to detect their user`s presence. I am not referring just to desktop or laptop computers, but to all the CPUs with which you come in contact, including the automatic teller machine at the bank and the cash register at the market.

How will computers know you? By your personal user interface--a badge of sorts. There are "dumb" personal user interfaces that just periodically emit an ID and "smart" ones that are Internet- protocol-based devices that can sense whether the person trying to use them is their legitimate user. Such technologies will generate a wave of new device installations. New devices will need to communicate via a network. Networks require infrastructure.

The easiest way to predict the future is to make it. And that is exactly what you, I, and thousands of other designers and installers are doing: cabling for what`s next--a high-fiber diet. For this kind of bandwidth, none of the Cats will do.

Best Wishes for a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

Donna Ballast is a communications analyst at the University of Texas at Austin and a BISCI registered communications distribution designer (RCDD). Questions can be sent to her at Cabling Installation & Maintenance or at PO Drawer 7580, the University of Texas, Austin, TX 78713; tel: (512) 471-0112, fax: (512) 471-8883, e-mail:

More in Home