Is wireless power about to become a reality? It sure sounds that way, according to a piece in Business 2.0 magazine about a company called Powercast, which says it has developed a way of powering devices (albeit fairly low-voltage ones for now) without power cords or bricks. And electronics giant Philips has signed a deal with Powercast to bring its technology to market.
It may sound incredible — and Ben Metcalfe seems to think it’s an April Fool’s joke come early — but wireless power is not a fantasy. In fact, the eccentric genius Nikolai Tesla, who invented alternating current or AC power, was pretty close to developing wireless power around the turn of the century, but didn’t quite make it — in part because his financial backer, J.P. Morgan, pulled out. It’s possible that his feud with fellow genius Thomas Edison (who favoured direct current power) had something to do with it, but I can’t say for sure.
And there is already what amounts to a wireless-power company, a company called Splashpower.com, which uses adapters that attach to electrical devices, and then charges those devices whenever they are placed on a special mat. But that involves actual contact between the device and the mat — Powercast says it can broadcast power to devices up to six feet away, through relatively small and inexpensive chips the size of a dime.
(in unrelated news, some guy likes to build giant Tesla coils in his garage).
Walking along the street, you decide to make a phone call with your cell. Pulling out your phone, it detects a wireless signal and logs on automatically, allowing you to make your call by Wi-Fi instead of using your expensive cellular service. Sounds great, doesn’t it? And hopefully, someday, that dream will come true and we’ll all be able to do just that. How close that vision might be is an open question, however.
A piece in the New York Times has gotten plenty of people excited about the prospect, given the interest expressed by companies like T-Mobile, Cisco and Earthlink. T-Mobile, for example, says it wants to let users switch seamlessly from its cell network to Wi-Fi hotspots it owns, which sounds great. But what if you want to use your phone in someone else’s hotspot — how easy will that be? Will you have to sign on and authenticate yourself every time, and/or pay your provider?
I’m as excited as the next guy about the idea of using Wi-Fi to make Skype calls instead of cellular calls — but I don’t think the carriers are going to make it as easy as I might like it to be, and I think we could wind up with a mish-mash of standards, charges and procedures. As usual, I think Om Malik has the right mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism on this one.
According to a report in the Toronto Star by my friend Tyler Hamilton, it sounds like Toronto could soon join the ranks of North American boroughs with wireless access that covers most (if not all) of the city. The local utility, Toronto Hydro, put out a press release saying it’s going to announce something tomorrow, and Tyler’s story says the announcement is going to be a rollout of city-wide wireless.
This would put the Big Smoke in the same league as Philadelphia, which gave Earthlink a contract to provide wireless that covers the city, and several California cities such as San Francisco, where Google and Earthlink have joined forces to provide municipal Wi-Fi coverage. Such efforts have come despite resistance from telecom players such as Verizon, which successfully got legislation passed in an attempt to block the Philly plan. New Orleans and Chicago are working on similar proposals.
The big question, of course, is what Toronto’s Wi-Fi will cost. Ever since coffee shops started adding wireless access and providers such as Spotnik and Fatport tried to turn it into a business, people have been wondering how to make money from Wi-Fi. If you’re a retailer, wireless is close to becoming a condiment – meaning something you have to have, like cream and sugar or public washrooms.
Will Toronto Hydro charge a monthly fee that can be added to your power bill? Will you be able to use PayPal, or tack it onto other city charges such as water or parking? And will it be $10 a month for all you can eat, or $40 a month for limited bandwidth? Those questions and more will hopefully be answered tomorrow.
More details about the plan here – it involves covering a big chunk of the downtown core, with 54mbps by the sounds of it, but no prices were given. Mark Evans has a great quote from Toronto Hydro on his blog.
Amid all the hoopla of the 3GSM conference in Geneva last week, most of which seemed to revolve around Microsoft getting into “push” email to compete with the BlackBerry, there were a couple of announcements that probably had telecom companies biting their fingernails (if they weren’t already, that is). One of these came from Microsoft head coach Steve Ballmer, who described how one of the features of the new Office Communicator suite would be the ability to make free VOIP calls over Wi-Fi from your cellphone (running Windows Mobile of course).
Come to think of it, Skype might be a little nervous at that idea too – not to mention the company that paid as much as $4-billion for it. But think about a carrier such as Verizon or AT&T. Their game up to this point has been selling mobile phones and services as fast as they can, in order to make up for the fact that regular old wired phone service is a moribund business. What if even a small percentage of those users (particularly the free-spending business types) could suddenly make free voice calls over Wi-Fi?
If I were a telecom player, that would certainly keep me awake at night. According to one British telecom analyst, voice revenues are set to plunge. “The premium for wireless voice, without mobility, will disappear as wi-fi networks spread,” Westhall Capital analyst Cyrus Mewawalla said. “By our estimates, that puts 75% of the market for mobile voice revenues at risk of a substantial price downgrade (in the order of 50%-80%). For some international calls, prices could fall by 90% or more.” And Nokia has made it clear it is determined to support VOIP over Wi-Fi: “Internet voice is going mobile,” said Nokia head Jorma Ollila.
The telecom companies aren’t completely powerless in all this. Nokia, Microsoft, Motorola and Research In Motion want access to their customers and networks, and they also want the carriers to subsidize their devices so that more people will buy them. That gives them leverage – but it may only allow them to slow the speed with which VOIP eats into their business, not stop it altogether.
Well, the FON network has $22-million or so from Google, Skype and Index Ventures, but it might have a bit of a credibility problem as well, after reports from one U.S. Internet service provider that contradicted what founder Martin Varsavsky said when he announced the deal. He said the company has the support of Speakeasy, a large ISP — but Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Networking News says that he got a message from the ISP saying that isn’t the case.
Looking at what Mr. Varsavsky said on his blog, he referred to being “pleased to announce today that we have obtained the support of two significant ISPs for FON. In America, Speakeasy has said that they welcome FON and in Europe, Glocalnet and FON have signed an agreement.” While he doesn’t specifically say that FON has a deal or has signed anything with Speakeasy, he makes it sound as though the company has pledged its support in some fashion.
According to Glenn, Speakeasy said that it supports sharing of Wi-Fi (one of the few ISPs that does) but that doesn’t mean it supports FON. In fact, the company says that FON’s plan sounds like something Speakeasy came up with in 2003 called NetShare, which also involved revenue sharing with those who allowed others to use their wireless connection. Although Speakeasy says it has reconsidered its initial plan to take legal action against FON for the statements, it is obviously less than pleased.
Needless to say, this kind of thing doesn’t bode well for the success of FON. It’s possible that Mr. Varsavsky misspoke, or that he was over-eager, and wanted to show more support than his company actually had. Whatever the case may be, it doesn’t look good to be claiming relationships you don’t have when you are trying to get something as ambitious as FON off the ground – and I would argue that it’s not likely to help other ISPs feel particularly comfortable about negotiating deals with the company either.