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Disruptive Wireless

Vanu Bose is CEO of Vanu Inc. Michael Gallagher serves as acting assistant secretary of commerce for communications in the U.S. Department of Commerce. Tren Griffin works as a technology evangelist for Microsoft. And Rob Toor is CTO of Ember.

Vanu Bose is CEO of Vanu Inc. Michael Gallagher serves as acting assistant secretary of commerce for communications in the U.S. Department of Commerce. Tren Griffin works as a technology evangelist for Microsoft. And Rob Toor is CTO of Ember. What follows is a partial transcript of their panel discussion at Supernova:

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Michael Gallagher: When you come from the government, “disruptive” is not a word people like very much. But I’m happy to address the topic and hope to give you some tools you can use to achieve your goals for spectrum working with government rather than opposed to it.

We don’t have innovation if we don’t have a strong economy. The job creation numbers are very strong. And 70% of the jobs created over the year are above the median income. When it comes to research and development, the president’s current budget is 45% higher than it was when he came into office. That’s the end of the commercial endorsement.

I work for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and we are the government’s primary adviser on telecommunications policy. The Department of Commerce is the same department that opens up international markets for your goods. It’s also the home of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the environment. Finally, it’s home to the technology administration.

The president gave us a goal for broadband — universal, affordable access by 2007 — a few months ago. Opening the door to disruptive technologies has been the mindset embedded in our work. Yesterday the president came over to the Department of Commerce and spoke at length on the importance of broadband and spectrum.

Let’s look at four examples of technologies we’ve worked on. The first is 3G. We’re very excited about making more licensed frequencies available. The next two, ultra-wideband and 5-GHZ, are unlicensed. The ultra-wideband allotment is very potent. At 5-GHz, we doubled the amount of spectrum made available for shared, unlicensed use. Finally is the millimeter wavelength, a potentially disruptive technology. In a very short amount of time, you’ll be able to go to the NTI Web site and negotiate a frequency assignment. That’s never been possible before.

In the recommendations to improve spectrum policy for the 21st century — which were made just yesterday — we encourage innovation, modernize spectrum management, increase efficiency, and ensure the protection of users.

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Broadband over power lines is another exciting development. Clearly it’s wired, but it has some interesting wireless impact. In summary, communications are the backbone of our economic and national security. Spectrum is the rocket fuel for innovation. And we intend to continue to move ahead on this path. As you move forward, please remember that we are your bridge and portal to the federal government. The government does not need to be your enemy.

Vanu Bose: Today’s wireless devices are hardware based. If you have a CDMA cell phone, it can’t be a GSM cell phone. The hardware determines the device. Software radio solves that problem. We want to move so devices become generic transmission and reception devices. The software can determine what the signal becomes. Currently, our business is focused on the military because of the wide range of non-interoperable radios. The challenge getting to a cell phone-like device is limited by battery life — it does take more energy to do this — and is probably five years away.

Technology development moves very quickly. Let’s look at wireless. That’s developed at the rate of one new standard every decade. That’s not because it’s evolving slowly. It’s because they don’t make it out to widespread deployment. That’s not technical. It’s financial. For one recent AT&T build out, they had to add entirely new base stations. With that kind of investment, it can take 7-10 years to make good on that investment. That’s why we’re trying to make our innovation a software change.

Rob Poor: Ember is an MIT Media Lab spin off that makes the tiny chips and software to drive the Internet to the next level of development. We got our start with DARPA money. We make chips. We make the software that makes those chips self-organizing, self-healing systems. And we help OEM’s build them into their products.

If you build connectivity out of silicon, it is guaranteed that it will continue to get cheaper. We’re already seeing customers in building automation so lighting can be controlled wirelessly. Phillips wants to partner with property managers so that, smoke detectors, and other devices are all connected. This can lead to mesh technology. How many of you have not experience having to move closer to a window with your cell phone — or move your laptop over a few inches over at Starbucks to get better connectivity? That’s a flaw of the traditional star topology.

Tren Griffin: I’m just back from two weeks in Asia. And we’re interested in using wireless for rural connectivity. We’re not interested in a phone for every villager, but some kind of wireless connectivity for every village. There’s a great little summary in a recent Economist called “A Brief History of Wi-Fi.” The most interesting thing about Wi-Fi is that it was all accomplished with so-called garbage spectrum. If you look at spectrum, it’s really big. There’s good spectrum and there’s bad spectrum. The change is going to require some pain and some shifting.

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Spectrum is like invisible money. It’s just lying on the ground. In these rural countries, if you have some money and you have some spectrum, you can create a network. In rural Montana, there’s a lot of spectrum, but there are no devices that can use it. We want two-way connectivity anywhere in the world. We need base stations that cost less than $10,000. We need chips that cost less than $5. We need cheap spectrum that will go through mud, adobe, and brick walls.

That spectrum needs to be used here. Why? Equipment companies dont build equipment to be sold in developing countries. They develop them for use here and then sell them over there. There’s going to be a battle for the spectrum. It’s like beachfront property. Let’s get that spectrum out into the hands of the people who need it. 30% of kids in India do not go to school. 70% of people in China live in the countryside. Some people have a vested interest in squatting on spectrum. If you have interest in what happens in the developing world, you need to step up and get involved politically. This needs to be grassroots.