David M. Granger


AUBURN -- Ask Sam Ginn about the future of wireless communications and listen to his voice.

Listen as he talks about "the ingenuity of the human spirit," and how that well of possibilities is the only limit of the technology he helped make accessible and affordable to populations worldwide.

There is discernible excitement in Ginn's voice as he discusses this exciting technology.

Having witnessed the first-wave of the wireless revolution firsthand, Ginn offers a unique perspective on where wireless technology is going in the future. He believes what we now know as cell phones -- he calls them "terminals" -- will soon replace hardwired phones as our primary means of communication.

"What is evolving here is really a change in the way people live and work," Ginn said. "In the future -- and already, to some extent -- I see the cell phone as a personal communicator. Each of us will have a personal wireless device and we will program that terminal for the kinds of things we want to be involved in or notified of. For example, you could program your terminal to give you the political headlines at 8 a.m. or to update you on the prices of stocks in your portfolio when the market closes each day. You will be able to program all of the phone numbers you want to use in it and, through voice recognition, call whomever you want whenever you want from wherever you want.

"The point is that it will replace the generic telephone device we're accustomed to using in our homes because it will be personally engineered for the way the particular user lives and works. In fact, it will afford you infinite possibilities."

Retired since May as chairman of Vodafone AirTouch Plc, Ginn has seen communications from all perspectives -- from his days as a student engineer with AT&T to his chairmanship of Pacific Telesis Group to his founding of AirTouch, which he grew into a global wireless giant.

And even after his retirement, Ginn continues to look toward the future of wireless communications. On Friday, he announced a gift of $25 million to Auburn University's College of Engineering, which will be renamed the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. Ginn, a 1959 Auburn engineering graduate, earmarked a portion of that gift to go toward creating an undergraduate degree program in wireless engineering.

"I want the young men and women of Alabama to have a shot in an industry that's likely to grow and be fascinating for years to come," Ginn said. "I see Auburn as a vehicle for providing them the background and the training to get that opportunity. One of my own personal objectives is to help the College of Engineering become a top-tier engineering school, but I also want to allow the students to participate in what I think is going to be a fabulous industry over the next several decades."

Many of the possibilities of wireless that Ginn mentions are akin to functions users are accustomed to from their personal computers. But, according to Ginn, there's a problem with PCs that make wireless more desirable -- they're "tethered."

"If you think about the history of how we, as a society, communicate, for the most part it has been tethered," Ginn said. "What fascinated me early on in the wireless revolution was that, for the first time, it gave people the opportunity to conduct affairs while on the move. Since we were and are living in a society that is more and more on the move, I thought it would result in an explosion of wireless devices. Indeed that has occurred.

"Soon, I believe that your wireless terminal will serve as your primary access point to the Internet. With increased data rates in the coming generation, you'll be able to access video, maybe even watch a movie. And I think that what you now recognize as a cell phone will move toward more specialized devices. If you're primarily a voice user, your terminal will likely look a lot like it does today. If you're mainly a data user, the space thatšs now given to a keypad will likely be a screen and, if you need a keypad, you will bring it up on that screen. If you need even more screen space, your terminal can serve as a docking station into a notebook PC."

Ginn says the wireless terminal will also be able to serve the user financially and medically as well.

"I think one of the most interesting and vital possibilities of the future of this technology is the ability to monitor and communicate medical issues. Your doctor could actually monitor certain conditions remotely, respond with whatever medications he might deem necessary for you without you even having to go to a doctor's office. As far as finances are concerned, your terminal can become an ATM machine. There are already systems where banks can download cash to a cell phone and these, I'm sure, will become more sophisticated and widespread in the future."

As much as hešs excited about the technology, Ginn is also excited about the coverage wireless terminals will provide in the future. In the near future, he says, a wireless user will be able to use his phone or terminal from 90 percent of all the locations on the planet.

"I see wireless terrestrial systems working with satellite systems to cover almost the entire earth," Ginn said. "If you think about the social implications of that, they're enormous. If you think news travels instantly now, imagine being in a remote part of the world and having the ability to be notified of a stock price, reminded of an appointment or whatever the case might be. That also means that, since there will be location devices in these terminals, you will have the ability to access instant information about your environment. Where is the nearest police station or pizza parlor? Youšll be able to find out almost instantly."

With all the possibilities the future of wireless technology will offer and with the cost of the services becoming cheaper as competition grows, what will happen to telephone land lines? Ginn says they will still fill a desired niche in the communications world.

"I don't see land lines becoming obsolete, but I think they will become a secondary method by which to communicate," Ginn said. "There is an MIT professor who has done extensive studies on this and I tend to agree with his conclusion that voice and individual data services will move to wireless and things like your television programming and your home internet service will be increasingly accessible over improved fiber optic lines. To some extent this is already happening.

The land line fiber optic network is very efficient at delivered high-speed entertainment."

Though his visions of the future of wireless communications are impressive, Ginn says the reality of that future will likely be even more so.

"I think the fascinating part of this is that, if you look over the past 25 years and our ability to communicate and the cost of communications and what has happened in that time span, it's almost inconceivable that such a change could have occurred," Ginn said. "With the pace of change in wireless, I don't think we have any real conception of how much it's going to change our life in every way. Think about the doctor and the patient that we've already discussed, the fisherman who will be able to have his catch sold before his boat even gets to port, the ability of the stock broker to transmit key information to his client wherever he may be. The ability, immediacy and accuracy afforded by wireless is going to change everything.

"What I'm really saying is that you haven't seen anything yet."

# # #