Spoutin' Off: My wishes are few and geeky

By Michael Rau

December 23, 2008

Well, it's certainly been an interesting year. History was made, both good and bad, and those events will make 2009 much different than any other time in our lives.

Technology played a role, for better or worse, and will again. So believing that there will be big fish to fry, these are a few of my personal tech-based wishes for the new year.

I wish for affordable access to the information superhighway for all.

One item under discussion in terms of a possible economic stimulus package could go a long way towards eliminating one of my least-favorite inequalities.

I've been griping for years about the lack of high-speed access to the information superhighway for a huge swath of Americans, and the ridiculous cost for access to the rest of us.

As part of a proposed economic stimulus package, President-elect Obama has said he'd like to create jobs by providing government funds to repair and expand our aging and crumbling infrastructure.

This includes the obvious things such as roads and bridges, but also the not-so-obvious.

Some water and sewer systems are a century old, and are literally deteriorating in front of our eyes. And our power grid, the system that transmits electricity nationwide, is aged and utterly inadequate for an efficient green society.

Our infrastructure is perhaps the most critical and cost-effective investment we can make towards our economic security and national defense. This is why I'm so pleased that the incoming administration has embraced ubiquitous broadband access as part of this initiative.

Left to private industry, the information superhighway will never extend to millions of Americans who the big boys don't care about. The infrastructure investment can change this.

And for the average working-class adult who breaks into a cold sweat while dealing with the bill from their broadband provider, this could help bring your cost in line with the rest of the civilized world.

I see basic consumer broadband access, whether wired or wireless, becoming something you acquire through a government agency, just like water and sewage services. Companies like Cox and Verizon will evolve into providers of large volumes of bandwidth for commercial and industrial purposes, as well as possibly offering premium “boutique” services to wealthier consumers.

I wish for better ways to store energy.

Battery technology may seem like a minor issue in the scheme of things, but trust me. It's not. It is, in fact, probably the single biggest problem to be solved in transitioning to energy independence. Here's why:

In the last ten years, industry has made tremendous strides in creating and developing methodologies for generating electricity without carbon-based fuels. The best known are the massive wind farms that have deservedly gotten a lot of media attention, and solar photovoltaic cells, which convert light into electricity, and are becoming cheaper and more efficient. But there are others.

The problem is that all of these electricity production methods have peak times, such as when the wind is blowing hard and steady, and slack times, such as when the wind is dead calm. This means you need to store surplus electricity created during peak times for use at slack times.

Storage batteries have been around since late in the 19th century, but have never been very efficient. Development of lightweight efficient rechargeable batteries took off in the 60's, courtesy of our friends over at NASA/Langley. But the nickel-cadmium batteries that entered the consumer market had serious limitations.

Enter lithium-ion. Batteries based on this technology started showing up in consumer goods less than 10 years ago, and are now utilized almost everywhere Ni-Cad batteries were previously used.

That's great for those of us who love cordless gadgets, but much more importantly, technologists are working feverishly to not only make them better, but assemble them into massive banks of storage systems that could potentially become the foundation for being able to store huge amounts of surplus co-generated electricity.

It should also facilitate a long overdue transition to electric vehicles.

Mr. Obama's energy folks have said they recognize the critical nature of this research, and have promised to support it.

I wish for a smooth transition to digital broadcasting for all.

This is a fairly small wish because, as far as I can tell, preparations are going quite well.

When the government decided a few years ago to mandate a fundamental change in the method by which television signals were broadcast, it meant that practically every man, woman, and child in America would be impacted.

The government instigated a massive public awareness campaign, as well as facilitating the change by supplementing the cost of converter boxes. Television stations, as well as their parent networks, have done an outstanding job of informing their viewers about the coming transition. And of course, media types like me and my colleagues have been (and will be) trying hard to help you get ready.

The transition takes place on February 17th. On that day, we'll see just how many people have been paying attention.

And one less technical wish:

I wish you a wonderful New Year!

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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