Anthony Ephremides


Rapid growth in wireless communications has recently stimulated numerous studies, workshops, reports, and other activities. All aim at fostering broad appreciation and understanding of the field as well as at formulating appropriate responses to trends in the development of related products and services. The WTEC study was sponsored by an impressive number of agencies of the U.S. government, led by the National Science Foundation. In fact, it was during a workshop sponsored by NSF in the summer of 1998 that a recommendation emerged to sponsor such a study. The objective was to assess long-term trends in research in the wireless communications area worldwide. A corollary objective was to use the findings to better formulate research funding priorities for the U.S. agencies that will help promote and maintain the competitiveness of the United States in this important technology area.

This introductory chapter describes the general parameters of the study and the approach that this panel took in addressing the sponsors' charge.

The first realization was that the field of wireless communications has multiple facets. To some people it conjures simply the image of cellular telephony and to others only propagation or fading phenomena. To the members of the WTEC panel, it represents the full gamut of applications that encompass cellular telephony, wireless LANs, Internet access, personal communications, telemedicine, other specialized applications, and, last but not least, military communications (which include diverse uses with corresponding unique requirements). It also encompasses, from the technology point of view, all the issues that traditionally correspond to the seven layers of the open systems interconnection (OSI) architecture that has governed the field of communications and networking in the last third of the 20th century.

This realization influenced the selection of the researchers and scientists who composed this panel, which contained truly distinguished experts and recognized authorities at all levels of the OSI model.

The second realization was that the task was enormous in light of the resources of the study. There has been such an intense and expansive growth in the field that almost every major company in the industrialized world, as well as literally hundreds, if not thousands, of mushrooming small players, have entered the technology and service arenas in this field. To fully access the status of wireless communications in the world, the panel would have to engage in an impossible mission of visits and meetings, which, in addition to being prohibitively expensive, would require a length of time that would render the findings obsolete by the time the study concluded.

Thus, the panel decided to be selective. It concentrated on major companies and institutes and carefully selected a representative set in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

The third realization was that applications are often ahead of theory and have been leading the development of technology. As a result, the enormous financial stakes have created a very intense competitive environment among the world's major players. In turn, this has diminished the willingness to share not only current research and development plans but also longer-term plans.

Therefore, the panelists had to challenge their skills to infer the directions in which companies see the field evolving.

A related realization was that the rapidity with which the wireless technology is used in a variety of new applications has created an environment in which confusion (if not chaos) is common. Not only the general public but also the technology developers themselves lack a firm, commonly held vision as to what is important (both in terms of products as well as in terms of services).

Consequently, the panelists had to use their own expertise and understanding of the field to interpret and complement the inputs they received.

Finally, the panel members realized that the community is paying a great deal of attention to the physical, link, and media access control (MAC) layers in the field of wireless communications. This is the result of previously dominant needs in military communications (that have led and predated the development of commercial applications by many years) and in cellular communications.

Because of the emphasis on layering and because the panel members firmly believe (as do most of the representatives of the sites it visited) that in wireless communications, hardware and networking aspects will become increasingly important, if not dominant in the future, the panel decided to focus on all seven layers of the OSI architecture as well as on antennas and equipment.

Published: July 2000; WTEC Hyper-Librarian