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Mobile Media's Growing Pains

by Scott Shamp


Scott Shamp is the director of the New Media Institute, in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. The New Media Institute is an interdisciplinary teaching and research unit that explores the creative, commercial and critical dimensions of innovative digital media technology. He is also the director of the Mobile Media Consortium, an academic/industry partnership that promotes the pro-social uses of wireless technology.

I love the boy. But living with a 16-year old would try Job’s patience, what with the never-ending phone conversations and the messy room. The main challenge is that my son is totally unaware that anyone else exists. Scratch that — he knows I exist because I hand out money and his mother exists because she feeds him. Other than that, he seems completely unaware anyone else occupies the world that seems to revolve around him. As a parent, I am worried. How is he going to get by with this “me, me, me” attitude? Then it hit me: He has the perfect mentality for a cellular wireless executive!

My son and the “old-world” wireless industry (the people trying to sell you the Internet and other information delivered to your cell phone) have a lot in common. In their relative youth, both are wrapped up in themselves. My teenager leaves his dirty socks on the kitchen table. These wireless companies develop applications that are good for wireless companies: polyphonic ringtones, cellphones with cameras, television tie-ins for text messaging, “Hello Kitty” animations. Fun maybe. But don’t fool yourself; wireless companies aren’t doing this for you. These gimmicks are geared toward one thing and one thing only: producing revenue for wireless companies.

Economics has made existing wireless companies self-centered. Cellular companies are pushing toward a new wireless technology called 3G (for third generation) that will deliver information to handsets (like your cellphone) at relatively fast speeds. All wireless technology uses radio waves to send and receive data, and wireless companies have spent billions for the licenses to use the limited block of radio waves they need for 3G. These companies have to produce revenue to recoup this investment. And since these companies are operating in a limited monopoly where only a few big companies can afford to buy the regulated spectrum, each is only competing with other companies under the same pressure to make good on investment. The corporate mentality of 3G makes it an unimaginative creature. 3G gives us cell phones that take pictures, text messaging that lets you vote singers off “American Idol” and online services that give you second-by-second tracking of your stock market portfolio. Quick tricks for wireless companies to make a buck selling new phones and charging for every byte users give or take. Not surprisingly, 3G wireless isn’t really showing us how this powerful new technology can change our lives.

But a new technology called WiFi (for Wireless Fidelity) is changing everything in the wireless world - for the better. WiFi uses unlicensed radio frequencies. The signals won’t travel as far as 3G, but transmission speeds are higher and anyone can set up a WiFi network without paying the government or getting its permission. The barriers to entry in terms of expertise and cost are so low (it can cost under $100 to set up a WiFi network) they are almost non-existent. As a result, thousands of “hotspots” (WiFi access zones) have sprung up all over the world. Coffee shops, McDonalds, airports and schools are providing WiFi connectivity.

WiFi feels like the Internet in 1994 when everything was new and possible. Unencumbered by the financial pressures plaguing 3G, WiFi is free to focus on what people actually want to do with wireless. WiFi takes applications out of the claustrophobic confines of locked-down, proprietary networks to explore how people really want to use mobile media in the real world. Creativity – not profitability – is driving development. Dorms rooms are the R&D rage; garages are the hot new incubators. And with little to lose, there are few limits to what people are willing to try.

The New Media Institute at UGA is taking advantage of WiFi’s opportunity to experiment. In December 2002, our students built a wireless cloud over downtown Athens in collaboration with Athens/Clarke County and the Georgia Research Alliance. We call it the WAGzone (Wireless Athens Georgia Zone). Today, the WAGzone blankets 24 blocks of the Classic City with free WiFi access. This is our real-world research test-bed to try out new ideas for wireless. Students are building working Athens-based mobile media prototypes that help people locate friends, find a cheap lunch, scan the entertainment choices, explore shopping options and learn about the music history of this creative town.

The NMI also has just launched a new initiative, the Mobile Media Consortium, to explore the ways wireless can improve people’s lives. This academic/industry partnership will promote the development of mobile media. With a pledged to avoid the techno-foolery and gee-whiz flash that has plagued wireless until now, the Consortium is promoting mobile media as a way to change people’s lives for the better.

As part of the Consortium, we’ve created a new student group, the Mobile Media Scholars. This year, nine Scholars will investigate the mobile media opportunities of different areas we have termed “quality-of-life verticals.”

Jason Lynes (a senior, computer science) looks at the ways mobile media can improve healthcare. 
Nicole Batten (a senior, management information systems) studies mobile media’s new role in education.
Lindsey Wagner (a junior, art) is delving into the ways mobile media can assist in emergency services.
Patricia Marsh (a senior, MIS) identifies how mobile media can improve the quality of life for people with special physical needs.
Jennifer Sipin (a junior, speech communication) examines how mobile media can help visitors function in a new town.
Neil Caron (a senior, MIS) probes ways that mobile media can encourage people to use public transportation.
Brian Spett (a junior, communications) is finding ways to use mobile media to help people enjoy art, music and sports more fully.
Travis McCutcheon (a senior, MIS) is devising ways that mobile media can revitalize the town centers of small communities.
Bill O’Dell (a junior, newspapers) explores how mobile media can improve a town by facilitating monitoring and reporting on it.

Based on their research last semester, the Scholars now are building prototypes for the WAGzone. The best way mobile media and wireless companies can grow and profit is to develop mobile media that improves people’s lives. We want to push mobile media companies to think about how to enhance customers’ quality of life with this powerful new technology.

After one particularly contentious interaction with my son (about his tendency to shower away all the hot water), I called my mom for help. She reminded me of a 16-year-old who used to drive her crazy by returning her car with absolutely no gas. He drank out of the milk jug and never lowered the toilet seat. “But he got better. He got older.”

We want the mobile media industry to grow up and realize the best route to success comes in helping others.

For more information email Scott Shamp at or access


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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