Nicholas Negroponte, the lab's director, told a gathering of the Congressional Internet Caucus that a sea change is developing worldwide in the telecom industry, fueled by a groundswell of Internet access where multiple users can share a single computer at school or a public kiosk.
"What's happening isn't just that telephone companies have taken on too much debt," Negroponte said. "(The idea that) a company had to build towers or switches, or dig ditches to lay fiber, may not be the future of telecommunications. The decline you've seen in market value may not be an instance of some economic trend that will bounce back with the rest of the economy."
A critical factor in this scenario is the portion of the radio spectrum not controlled by the government, Negroponte said, in particular the so-called 802.11 standard. Developed by the computer industry under the guidance of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, 802.11 regulates the transfer of between 1 million and 2 million bits of data per second in the 2.4-gigahertz industrial, scientific, and medical communications band.
The standard permits extremely low-power transmissions that do not interfere with most commercial telecommunications. In North America, 802.11 accounts for only 100 milliwatts of transmitter power, and even less elsewhere. Yet technologies that use the 802.11 standard can do so outside the control of telecom giants.
Negroponte framed the scene for a new Internet using an analogy of waterlilies and frogs, where the former represents wireless access areas and the latter represents users moving from one connection to another.
"You set up a point of access in your home or office, and it radiates a certain distance," Negroponte said. "I think about 150 people use my 802.11 access point without me knowing it, and that doesn't affect either my cost or performance. (As this continues) you'll find a seamless broadband telecommunications system built for the people, by the people."
Negroponte explained that the phenomenon is developing not only in large cities but in remote areas around the world. As cell phones, personal digital assistants and other devices incorporate 802.11-type links, this movement could recreate and expand the Internet without the need for building more infrastructure, Negroponte said.
Such a network essentially would rewrite the physics rules guiding current wireless communication, said Andrew Lippman, a senior research scientist at the Media Lab. At present, each connection point, or node, can handle only a limited number of users. Each device in the future system could become a node, however, increasing the potential number of users without taxing the network's overall capacity.
"It's more like the physics of a soccer stadium," Lippman said. "If you look at all the fans, each one can talk to the person next to them and they don't have to use a different (frequency). The trick is they talk only at the level where the other person can hear them and don't take over the (stadium's sound) capacity."
Lippman predicted this change in usage will spur a concurrent change in business models, in which telecommunications systems no longer would need a central point for allocating resources.
"The telecom industry isn't going to be revived by a large-scale, centralized thrust," Lippman said. "It's going to be revived a la Internet, in an incremental end-user sense, where every consumer decides what they will buy."
Gauging the needs of such users will be vital as companies start building these systems, Lippman said. Government agencies will have to rework their policies to reflect changes in network control.
Answering questions from the audience, Lippman said such a wireless system would have an inherent degree of security, because devices would pass information at a very fundamental level. Apart from that feature, the Media Lab's paradigm can accept as much security as is thought necessary, he said.
As for worries about spam -- the electronic equivalent of junk mail -- most people will come to understand the value of such a communications link and not clog it up with worthless messages, Negroponte said.
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