Negroponte fetes Italian inventor, eyes telecom future

Internet guru Nicholas Negroponte Wednesday outlined his view of the future of telecommunications -- light in infrastruucture but heavy in intelligence -- at a meeting in Rome to celebrate the Italian inventor of the telephone, Antonio Meucci.

Tomorrow's telecommunications will be influenced by the ability to put intelligence into increasingly small devices and by an ever more efficient use of radio spectrum, Negroponte said.

The chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Lab was addressing a ceremony at the Communications Ministry in Rome to honor the Florentine-born Meucci, who died in the U.S. in 1889, an unsung pauper. The "Meucci Day" celebration was hosted by Communications Minister Maurizio Gasparri and attended by President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and leading figures from Italy's telecom industry. It came just a year after the U.S. House of Representatives officially recognized Meucci as the inventor of the telephone, righting the judicial and historical injustices that had handed credit for the discovery to his rival Alexander Graham Bell.

Negroponte pointed out that two Italian inventions, Guglielmo Marconi's wireless and Meucci's telephone, had come together to produce the cellphones in everybody's pocket. Last year the number of wireless handsets had overtaken the number of fixed-line telephones for the first time, he said.

Radio spectrum is currently inefficiently used, Negroponte said, with at most 5 percent being exploited at any one moment. "The reason for this is that we designed our laws assuming the devices were very stupid. In future they will be much more intelligent and will collaborate with one another. As a result we will be able to use spectrum with lower power and greater efficiency," he said. "Radio and telephones will become more peer-to-peer."

A new economic model will emerge to harness the new technological possibilities, Negroponte predicted. "Today's telephony, even wireless telephony, is like a heavy industry. You need a big company to pay for the towers for the infrastructure. That model will continue, but a new one will emerge. Radios and computers will become microcommunication entities."

Negroponte likened the emergence of Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) hotspots to waterlilies on a pond, with frogs hopping from lily to lily to carry messages. If every cellphone assumes the task of carrying messages for other people, he said, it could reduce the need for large, fixed infrastructures. "The more telephones the better in that system," he said.

"People object that there is no economic model for it, but there is: the economic model of flower-boxes," he said. "I put out flower-boxes to raise my self-esteem and make my house look more attractive. If almost everyone does it then the whole town becomes more beautiful. The same thing can happen with communications."

The challenge for telecom is to combine wireless with very intelligent devices, Negroponte said. "The combination will allow us to use spectrum in a very different way, in more efficient and organic ways than before," he said.

Negroponte said Meucci's failure to develop or obtain recognition for his invention was a harsh lesson on the nature of the relationship between technology and entrepreneurship. The inventor, described by Communications Minister Gasparri as "the first man to enter the virtual world," was unable to patent his discovery for lack of funds.

A mechanical engineer and designer who emigrated to Cuba in 1835, Meucci stumbled on the discovery that copper wire could carry sound while trying to develop a new method to treat arthritis with electric shocks. He moved to New York in 1850 and four years later developed a prototype of his telephone, which he used to communicate with his bedridden wife from his workshop. Unable to afford patent protection, he saw his invention patented by the Scottish-born Bell in 1876. Meucci was ill-treated by the U.S. courts and duped by business rivals. In 1871 his wife was forced to sell his prototype telephone and other materials to pay for medical treatment after Meucci was seriously injured by the explosion of a boiler on a ferry.

Invention and entrepreneurship must go hand in hand if we are to learn from Meucci's tragic failure, Negroponte said. "In the United States entrepreneurship grew up in parallel with invention," he said. "Nations that don't have an appetite for risk are not going to push these ideas."

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