Invisible Mobile Market Starts to Appear

By Ed Sutherland

June 14, 2002

The public Wi-Fi connection you use today could tomorrow look after your child's safety, a corporation's bottom line or even turn your body into a living medical history repository.

Dwarfing the few billions of people on this planet able to own a cell phone, operate a wireless network or subscribe to a mobile service are hundreds of billions of machines, medical devices, UPC labels and inventory control systems waiting to be connected. They could form the widest area network ever envisioned.

Marketing firm Forrester Research's European unit has coined the term invisible mobile to describe "mobile communications without human intervention." The report's author, Lars Godell, says invisible mobile will reignite growth throughout the mobile telecom industry within five to 20 years.

Who will benefit from this new market? IBM, Sony and Ericsson are only three of the many equipment vendors, device makers and solution providers that would come out winners, according to the report. They'd do it with better inventory tracking using Radio Freqency ID tags, which in turn will increase corporation profits.

An invisible network would combine Body area networks (BANs) composed of sensors worn or implanted, with Bluetooth-based Personal area networks (PANs), inexpensive wireless local area networks (WLANs) and established cellular wide area networks (WANs).

Invisible mobile will pick up where visible mobile is beginning to show signs of a slowdown. Not only is the visible mobile sector limited by the number of humans, but also by human limitations and the excruciating financial cost of bringing new mobile services to humans.

As nearly 70 percent of the 385 million people of Western Europe have cell phones, wireless subscriptions have begun to fall. In 2001, Germany alone saw a three percent reduction in wireless customers, according to Forrester. Forrester believes the number of mobile subscribers will never exceed 80 percent of the population. However, there are trillions of machines, appliances, and consumer items waiting to communicate.

Despite the fervor of wireless carriers to introduce new services, humans have just so much time and money to spend on the phone.

Forrester estimates the capital expenditure for 3G is 15 times higher than for 2.5G systems. Additionally, Europe will need 700,000 3G base stations, each costing between $189,000 to $473,000.

Although the number of new subscribers will level off or decline, wireless carriers will still need to pump more money into their marketing and support activities to keep customer turnover, or "churn", down.

Invisible mobile has no such constraints. As the cellular carriers of visible mobile look far and wide for room to launch their 3G and 4G networks, the invisible mobile side employs WLANs, Bluetooth, GPRS and RFID -- all established technologies that work with little radio spectrum.

Cost for the invisible mobile market will be much less. As costs rise in the visible mobile sector, WLAN or Bluetooth access points are dropping from $400 in 2001 to just $100 over the next 18 months, according to Forrester. RFID chips costing as much as $3 each today will drop to a nickel a piece in three to five years, according to the report.

Corporate giants such as Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble are investing heavily in the invisible mobile market. Given have given the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Auto-ID Center $6.9 million to create an electronic product code (EPC) to replace the current paper UPC. An EPC would use RFID technology to track items from the warehouse to the store shelf and on to the consumer's refrigerator.

For example, Forrester says Coca-Cola could reduce lost sales due to items being out of stock by using EPCs to track the 200 million products it produces each year.

By Ford placing a radio tag on car parts, a GPRS unit in completed autos and wirelessly link all the factory machines, Forrester believes the car maker could eliminate factory errors, collect data from cars on the road allowing autos to be repaired before they break down and tweak production for optimum factory output.

The controversial RFID-based VeriChip from Applied Digital Solutions, placed under the skin, could turn your body into a network and carry your full medical history. The invisible mobile concept is being explored by companies like En-Vision America, which attaches an RFID tag to medicine bottles preventing the blind from taking the wrong medication.

How about the invisible mobile as baby sitter? A newborn baby with an RFID ID tag could be wrapped in a blanket that monitors body temperature and heartbeat. Upon the first signs of fever, doctors and nurses could be paged using Bluetooth or 802.11 and the baby's family receives a SMS alert -- all automatically, with no humans in the loop.

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