Emory Report
August 4, 2008
Volume 60, Number 36



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August 4, 2008
Evolving in an always-on, always-connected world

Alan Cattier is director of academic technology services.

The headline theme for this year’s Apple Macworld Conference: “There’s something in the air,” wasn’t only an allusion to a new laptop that Apple was going to introduce that was as light as air, hence it’s name, the Macbook Air. It wasn’t just a tagline to be linked to a new product, the iPhone 3G, to designate a core new focus of a technology company. It wasn’t even a corporate statement on the condition of Steve Jobs’ health. Rather, in that curious way that a phrase sometimes captures, it was a mantra that could be applied to our time.

For if anything dominated the technological headlines of the last six months, it was the explosion of activity around digital networks and wireless devices. It began in February with the now-ubiquitous public service announcements where television stations announced that they would soon no longer be broadcasting analog signals and that everyone had to “go digital” through a converter box, their cable system or satellite.
At roughly the same time, the FCC was evaluating and then announcing the results of its 700 MHz wireless spectrum auction, which raised nearly $20 billion. This competition, largely “won” by Verizon and AT&T, is the auction for the next generation of high speed wireless services in the United States, an auction that guaranteed that there would be “openness” beyond these two common carriers on a new, faster, more far-reaching infrastructure that they would deploy.

Closer to home, cell phone users in the Atlanta area began to see the arrival of the long-awaited 3-G networks, ones whose speed and performance had long been part of communicating in Asia and parts of Europe, but whose capability was only now being launched in the U.S. For many of us, our venture onto the Internet with mobile devices had occurred roughly a year and a half earlier with Palm Treo devices and EVDO cards; equipment that allowed a sample of what was possible with wireless DSL-like speeds and coverage offered by 3-G networks.

Finally, if anyone bought a cell phone in the last six months, they would recognize the almost complete break with the type of equipment being offered a year ago, with analog cell phone service (or equipment) no longer existing, “plain” cell phones becoming harder to find, Smart phones becoming the default, with new GPS and Touch Technologies as part of a range of new capabilities. Who could have missed the brouhaha of the weekend of July 11 when Apple Inc. sold 1 million of their iPhone 3G devices in three days? There’s something in the air.

What all these developments in networks and devices betoken is an always-on, always-connected, now geo-located individual with their device and ubiquitous access to wireless high-speed networks. The range and speed of the networks is only going to increase, as the FCC auction intimates, expanding the reach of the connectivity well into rural areas.

Beyond that, the always-on coverage will yield greater access to digital resources and information from many locations globally, such that the possibilities of communication and exchange will be more fundamentally founded within a global “wireless wrapper.” This will yield new opportunities for the wired infrastructure for connectivity that so many of us now currently depend on.

As a university, there will be many opportunities to explore new frontiers in collaboration and communication because of these developments that have gathered to be this sea change in the “air” around us. If nothing else, it means the possibility of collecting, researching, accessing and sharing information in places well beyond the campus border. Permeability and adaptability are necessary campus responses to a world with such broad coverage.

With so much of this change occurring around us, remaining open and rigorously exploring the pressures that are shaping our culture, our disciplines, and our institutions is essential. The opportunity of understanding “something in the air” is seeing what can’t be seen, a new and evolving space for the student, teacher, researcher in a hyper-connected world.