Today there are about 3 billion people in the world who are wirelessly connected, most by voice and some by data services. In the United States there is a concern that the growth will slow down because we are at about 250 million wireless customers out of a total population of 303 million. That is equal to about 83 percent of the U.S. population. There is a fear that as we approach 100 percent penetration, the industry is going to experience a slow down. But I think 100 percent penetration is just the beginning.
Why do I say that? The answer is that we are entering a new era where it is not just one device per person. Already some of us have three. For example, I carry a Blackberry, a phone and my notebook computer is equipped with a high-speed wireless broadband modem. I also own a Kindle, the Amazon electronic book reader that uses the Sprint EV-DO network to download books, and I only pay for the book, not the airtime. In fact, there is no subscription to Sprint and many people think that the books are delivered over free WiFi, but the reality is that it is Sprint's EV-DO network.
Next up is the Chumby, a clock radio that connects to my Wi-Fi network at home. It permits me to display (but not interact with) stock prices, pictures, several news broadcasts, weather and more. In the future, it will be tied into real-time traffic and it will adjust itself according to the weather and the traffic reports, giving you a few extra minutes of sleep or waking you early. It will also control my coffee pot, and the temperature of my house so that the heat will come on a few minutes before the alarm goes off.
I estimate that we will hit 300 percent penetration in the next five years. I don't think that this is unreasonable, since we are now in an era where wireless is not just about wireless. It is also about extending the capabilities of other devices. Anything we use today that could benefit from being connected. Think about your navigation system, the points of interest is old before you even buy it. Try finding a gas station along your route, many of them have been closed long ago. What if the road is under construction for the next year (as they all seem to be) but there is no data in your files to show that? Well with two-way communications via a simple wireless chip, your navigation system will be more up-to-date, traffic information will be relayed to it, and construction zones will show up on your screen.
You want to program your Tivo Digital Video Recorder? You can already do that today over the Verizon Wireless network, it will just cost you more. Want to get your dog home in time for dinner? Just go to your computer and look at the GPS they have on their collar and then using voice command them to come home. Think I am being funny here? I am not. All of this is either available or coming soon. Want to monitor your heart rate or your glucose values? Have the results sent to your PC for charting or to your doctor. We have phones that will do that too, today.
We are crossing the divide, not the chasm, but the divide. We are entering a time when there will be two types of devices: Those whose primary function is communications and those who use communications to add value to the device. My Kindle is not about communications, it is about electronic books. It just so happens that they are delivered via Sprint's EV-DO broadband network rather than to my computer.
There is still the question of if we have enough wireless bandwidth for all of us to do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it. The new pricing plans-- which are no longer based on unlimited data but rather on unlimited data usage--will help us be more aware of the bandwidth limitations of wireless.
So we are easily headed for 300 percent penetration and Sprint's WiMAX business model of charging us by the individual and the family and not the device is making more sense every day. We have just seen a shift in pricing, all you can eat voice for under $100, and data limits on a monthly basis. Can price per customer or family be far away? I don't think so.
In the meantime enjoy what we have available to us and think about having your favorite consumer product enabled with wireless. That is where we are headed.
Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.