Excerpt from the Book
It’s a small town. It could be anywhere in the American Midwest.
There are no traffic lights in the town center – only a
flashing red light at the main intersection, where a farm tractor
halts and then crawls forward. Radio waves swirl everywhere,
but they are invisible.
Each day the little hamlet wakes up, rubs its eyes, and begins
to move. One by one, cars stop at the blinking light. They pause
and then proceed deliberately along Main Street – with extra
care when children are nearby. People drift in and out of the
Main Street shops, stopping to chat with friends and neighbors.
A raised voice is rarely heard. It’s a friendly little place, and,
except for the occasional political dispute, everyone gets along.
But technology has found its way to our little town. Shoppers
have cell phones pressed to their ears. Drivers chat with
invisible companions. A young couple sitting on a park bench beside the train depot uses their smartphone to check e-mail.
Though they’re unaware of it, they’re connected to a wireless
hotspot installed in the town center by a local civic group.
There is free Wi-Fi service for all.
The pair of 20-somethings shows their new device to a
passerby. Folks like to be connected, having family and friends
always available and Internet information instantly accessible.
Young people say wireless is “cool.” Their elders say it’s “handy.”
Like my friends and neighbors, I use my smartphone every
day. It’s a cellular phone, e-mail reader, calculator, Web
browser, music player, newspaper reader, book reader, calendar,
camera, notepad, and more. Wireless technology and small
computer-like devices have become part of our lives.
But, when my neighbors hear that I work with wireless,
they ask questions. Why don’t smartphones always work? Why
do Blackberrys sometimes garble voices or go completely dead,
making it impossible to place a phone call or read e-mail? Why
does an iPhone work perfectly in one corner of a room but not
I search for simple answers to my friends’ questions. Radio
waves are the bad boys that stir up the trouble, but their mischief
is subtle and complex. They act up in endlessly creative
ways. Their misbehavior is diabolical. Designers of wireless
devices scramble to outwit the impish waves but never claim
As I struggle to answer my friends’ seemingly simple questions,
I flash back to scenes of my journey in the world of wireless.
I remember vignettes from a lifetime searching for answers to its
mysteries. But the answers to the questions depend on which of
the bad boys is misbehaving. I leave the young couple, walking around a building’s corner and into its parking lot. My e-mail service
stops working. Yet the Wi-Fi station is only a few blocks
away. What’s the problem?
That night I drive my pickup out the highway north of
town, and the truck’s AM radio pulls in a West Coast station. I
hear other faraway stations fade in and out, crowding out the
local ones. Sometimes I hear two voices at the same time, one
from nearby and one from a few thousand miles away. A faraway
station overpowers a closer one, allowing only the distant
one to be heard clearly. Then the distant signal fades out, and I
hear the closer one again. This never happens in the daytime. It
happens only at night. Why?
I switch to FM, and a local station flutters in and out as I
continue to drive. How can this be? The station’s transmitter is
only a few miles away. And I don’t hear any distant stations on
FM. Why not?
Even the cell phone service is spotty. I climb a hill, and my
cell phone works, but, when I crest the hill and descend the
other side, the connection is lost. Other times the cell phone’s
sound quality deteriorates from bell-like clarity to noise-corrupted
chaos in just a few moments. Then, suddenly, it’s clear
When I read e-mail messages on my smartphone or my
Wi-Fi equipped laptop computer, the devices try to shield me
from the shenanigans of radio signals. Because I don’t hear any
radio garble, the problems are hidden. Sometimes an e-mail
message or Web page appears on my screen and sometimes it
doesn’t, but the underlying reasons are invisible.