'Good times' for wireless despite downturn

The future is bright for wireless, even as the recession lingers, according to a sampling of vendors and operators at the International CES trade show.

"I've been in wireless for 30 years ... and I can say this is really the year for wireless," said Victoria Obenshain, director of wireless strategy for Panasonic Computer Solutions, a subsidiary of Panasonic. She said this is the case for many reasons, even when taking into consideration the economic collapse in October and the declarations of recession. "We're very bullish where we'll go."

Obenshain oversees Panasonic's wireless strategy for Toughbook laptops and works with suppliers to find the right mix of wireless connections for the laptops, such as whether customers might want Wi-Fi or any number of wide area wireless connections including WiMax and HSPA. One of her goals, she said, is to support any mix of wireless connections with the right management software to help switch a device to the right network automatically. She spoke at a breakfast event sponsored by FierceWireless today at CES.

Panasonic is closely watching how the federal government decides to stimulate the economy once Barack Obama assumes the presidency, Obenshain said. The way the stimulus is implemented could focus on certain market sectors, such as manufacturing or health care, which would give Panasonic an indication of what features and wireless connections to support in its laptops, she said.

Panasonic's laptops have a 5 percent annnual failure rate and last an average of five years in work settings, meaning they have a long shelf life that provides an advantage in a downturn, she added.

Glenn Lurie, president of emerging devices for AT&T , was equally optimistic despite the economic downturn. "We see the same market opportunity" as before the stock market collapse in the autumn, he said.

AT&T set up a team nine months ago to manage innovation in wireless connections for new consumer electronics devices and applications, Lurie said, and that effort is moving forward at a fast pace. He cited sales of Apple 's iPhones, which continue to be healthy, as an indication of how important a full-functioning smart phone will be.

CES economists and researchers also believe smart phones will perform better in 2009 than other consumer electronics and that consumer electronics will perform better than other segments of the economy.

Obenshain and Lurie agree that many factors will push wireless forward. Among those factors are the recent provisioning of faster wireless networks by several US carriers, a drastic drop over the last year in the price of wireless components and the maturing of the youth market, which grew up using all sorts of technology.

Regarding wireless modules added to laptops, Obenshain said that while costs have dropped, Panasonic is still seeking ways to work with chip makers to bring prices down even more. The cost of wireless module inside a device can run anywhere from $5 to $150, she added.

Barry West , president and chief architect of Clearwire , said the lagging economy's impact on the rollout of a nationwide WiMax network "is fairly small" because Clearwire will continue in a deployment stage for 2009. He spoke in an interview at CES, four days after Clearwire announced the launch of its Clear service for WiMax to Portland, Ore.

"I don't believe people won't come to Wimax" because of the economy, he said. "Everybody uses the Internet today and it is such a core part of our lives. Having access wirelessly data is vital, the same as having access to voice networks. Yes, it's not a time to be happy about the economic situation, but in a way it's not that bad."

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