Wired and Wireless Networks Compete—Cooperatively

For almost two centuries, wired networks have given birth to wireless ones, only to spawn new wired ones

Illustration: Matthew Hollister

In the beginning, all real-time communication across distances was wireless—bonfires, smoke signals, semaphores. Centuries of wireless passed before Samuel Morse pioneered telegraphy in 1837 with electrical transmission over wires. By the time Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, wires had already crossed the American continent and the Atlantic Ocean.

Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated modern wireless telecommunications in Italy in 1895. Then in 1899 he sent the first radio signals in America from a ship covering the America’s Cup race to a receiver at a lighthouse overlooking New Jersey’s Sandy Hook Bay. Standing at that very lighthouse, looking down on the bay below, I have wondered: Why demonstrate wireless in this way?

I tried to put myself in Marconi’s shoes. He aspires to be a great entrepreneur. He has this magic new box that sends telegraphy without the need for wires, but what is it good for? Is there a market? After all, there are already wires everywhere of importance, and have been for decades. The answer seemed to lie below me, there in the bay. No wires can stretch out to ships at sea.

Many of Marconi’s early deployments featured ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship transmission, culminating on the infamous day of 15 April 1912, when the Titanic sank and Marconi’s wireless telegraphy played a critical role in the rescue of the survivors. However, wireless became mainly a conduit for commercial broadcast. For most of the 20th century, personal, point-to-point communication was done through wires, and with the rise of the cable industry, even television transmissions moved from air to earth.

Eventually, plans for cellular telephony began to emerge. AT&T was pondering the same questions as Marconi—what was wireless good for, and was there a market for it? The answers came back from a consultant: Wireless phones were good only for emergency communications, and the market would be small. But we have since learned the opposite—that wireless is equally good at the trivial (“I’m here already, where are you?”) and the market is huge.

I can hardly fault the consultants. On the day that Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, I got a call from a journalist representing a large newspaper. What did I think of Apple’s new phone? I told him that this phone would revolutionize the wireless business and create a whole new vision of phones as smart appliances.

Well, no, I didn’t tell him that; I only wish that I had. I actually said something not worth printing either in the newspaper or here. Apparently I was not alone. A designer from another cellphone maker has told me regretfully that its own focus groups had not liked the idea of a touch screen—the screen was small, and people don’t have pointy little fingers.

After a century of wires, now everything is wireless. I see the forlorn public phones at airports. I’m not even sure if they work anymore, and if you tried to use one, passersby would look on you with pity. I think that the whole idea of being tetherless is a compelling state of mind. (My sleepy dog just looked up at me in seeming agreement.) Take the wireless mouse. It’s confined to its pad. It doesn’t go out and roam the world. Why does it need to be wireless? Yet I like it that way. Give the little creature some freedom. When I am in a hotel room there is usually a choice of wireless or wired, right at the desk, where I set my laptop down. I invariably choose wireless, even though the connection is almost surely worse.

The pendulum has swung, and anything that can be wireless must be wireless. With 4G, more and more people are even getting their broadband access through the air. Nevertheless, all that wireless access is but a surface coating over a gigantic, unseen, wired infrastructure beneath. One of my research friends used to say, “Wireless isn’t.” So the curious thing is that in the last century, broadcast was all wireless and personal communication all wired; now it is exactly the reverse—but stay tuned.

About the Author

Robert W. Lucky, an IEEE Fellow, holds 11 patents and worked for many years at Bell Labs. Before retiring in 2002, he was vice president for applied research at Telcordia Technologies, in Piscataway, N.J.

This article originally appeared in print as "Wires and Wireless."

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