By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless magazine
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From our editors
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What Is Bluetooth's Place in the Enterprise?
The short-range wireless technology known as Bluetooth has started to appear: Microsoft offers Bluetooth mice and keyboards, Motorola and Belkin offer Bluetooth headsets, 3Com and TDK Systems offer Bluetooth cards and adapaters for PCs and PDAs, and an increasing number of cell phones have Bluetooth embedded. A key attribute is Bluetooth's ability to create on-the-fly, ad-hoc networks that require no router or other server, so devices can easily be linked together for data exchange or pass-through. Bluetooth offers a nominal 30-foot range and 725Kbps to 1Mbps speed, so it's not designed for large-scale wireless networking. That's reflected in the first offerings, which focus on so-called personal area networks, such as wireless synchronization of a PDA to a desktop, or using a cell phone to be a wireless modem for users that have GPRS cellular data service (mainly in Europe), or as a cable replacement for various devices. Also displayed at last week's Bluetooth Developers Conference were Bluetooth-enabled luxury cars that link cell phones to hands-free microphones and speakers and could serve as a conduit for PDAs and laptops to GPRS-connected Internet-based data systems in the car.
These uses don't sound very enterprise-oriented, and in fact they're not. The first crop of Bluetooth devices are more personal in nature and use, and Bluetooth vendors expect them to stay that way for the foreseeable future. "Bluetooth now is user-driven, not IT-driven," says Matt Maupin, Motorola's Bluetooth product manager for the semiconductor unit. It will enter the enterprise much the same way that PDAs did, he says: in the hands of individuals. In addition to the consumer focus of Bluetooth vendors, enterprise IT has two other reasons not to pay much attention to Bluetooth right now, says Brent Nixon, 3Com's Bluetooth product line manager and a member of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group's marketing committee. One is that the tight economy limits experiments with new technologies, and the other is that Bluetooth still has a black eye from compatibility problems that surfaced in the first products a year ago.
But while such individual, white-collar Bluetooth uses may not reach IT's standards or needs, Bluetooth could be quite useful to a whole segment of the enterprise.
One possible Bluetooth use for the enterprise is in location identification, says Motorola's Maupin. A network of Bluetooth access points could be set up to register when people or items come within their 30-foot range, allowing quick location tracking. Of course, this would work only in contained environments where the items being located had a manageable number of places to be. It also requires a controlled technology environment, because one of Bluetooth's weaknesses is its use of profiles to determine a particular device's capabilities. The idea was to let Bluetooth serve all sorts of needs and use profiles to hone into specific needs for specific uses. But devices with different profiles may not be able to communicate, causing compatibility problems even for equipment with like usages. "Bluetooth was designed to do so many things, so it's harder to agree on a single profile à la the Wi-Fi Alliance," says 3Com's Nixon. (The Wi-Fi Alliance added its own certification to the IEEE 802.11b standard to ensure interoperability.) Still, the Bluetooth SIG is working on an iconographic way of indicating profile support on device packaging and is encouraging vendors to avoid needless incompatibility in their profile definitions and use, Maupin says. Also of note to IT, Bluetooth's ability to pair specific hardware to other hardware can ensure that only authorized devices can talk to other devices; in addition, several levels of token-based access security are available, Nixon says.
Another area is in industrial automation, using Bluetooth instead of cables for increased flexibility and to minimize corrosion and contamination through cable receptacles. The Bluetooth Industrial Automation Study Group forecasts that the market for Bluetooth wireless industrial sensors alone could reach $1 billion by 2006 and $3 billion by 2008.
For a stronger ROI case, consider what United Parcel Service is doing: Over the next two years, UPS is deploying both Bluetooth and 802.11b technology in its shipping centers, replacing earlier proprietary wireless systems. UPS will use Bluetooth to link the handheld scanners that warehousing staff use to scan boxes as they are received and shipped to the data terminals that the staff wear on their belts. The terminals connect to the inventory and shipping databases via 802.11b connections. "We're using Bluetooth to replace cables, lighten up the device, and reduce the cost," says Tamara Schwartz, UPS's director of global network services. The current system use scanners wired to the terminals, and those wires often get pulled out or snapped, which brings significant replacement and downtime costs when multiplied over the thousands of units each year that get broken. Schwartz estimates that the use of Bluetooth will save 30% in maintenance costs, 35% in spare-parts costs, and 35% in reduced downtime. And because Bluetooth is a standardized technology with many vendors supplying components, the scanner and terminal prices go down as well compared to the costs of the proprietary devices. "It's a great scenario for us. It's a simplistic deployment for us -- we don't have many device varieties or public access issues to manage," she says.
While UPS avoided the profile-incompatibilty issue by having a defined set of equipment in use, and it avoided the security issue by the nature of its private facilities, the one significant IT deployment issue that UPS had to wrestle with was interference between Bluetooth and 802.11b. "It was a significant issue for us," Schwartz says. UPS's solution was to use time-division multiplexing, essentially reserving 20% of transmission time for Bluetooth and the remaining 80% for 802.11b. Bluetooth and 802.11b both use multiple channels in the 2.4GHz spectrum and then lock on to an available channel.
UPS's solution works when the devices are designed in tandem and come from one or two cooperating vendors, but in locations where a wide variety of wireless devices were in use, something else needs to be done. That's why Motorola is working on Bluetooth chips that will scan the spectrum continually and hop from one band to another to avoid interfering with other wireless sources such as 802.11b, Maupin says, and hopes to release the chips in spring 2003, once the Bluetooth SIG approves a standard for such frequency hopping. 3Com's Nixon doesn't see interference as a big issue, since Bluetooth transmissions tend to be short, and 802.11b can handle interruptions and other contention like other packet-based networks. But I suspect that, for enterprises like UPS that have a tremendous amount of wireless data transfer occurring all the time, interference is likely to be a real concern.
Despite the likely need to deal with interference and the possible issue of unmanageable profiles, UPS's Schwartz believes that other logistically oriented businesses could benefit from Bluetooth in similar situations, including transportation, retail, medical, manufacturing, and warehousing. She's right, even if most vendor and user attention is now mainly focused on personal productivity and convenience gadgets that IT will leave to individuals -- as long as they don't cause IT any headaches, of course.
A touted benefit of 802.11 technology is providing Internet access to people who otherwise can't get it. One subset of 802.11 use is as a broadband technology for locations that aren't wired with DSL, ISDN, digital cable, T1, or other such connections. Access points are mounted on a tower or building, providing service to nearby buildings (as far as 1,500 feet away); the signal to the access point is delivered via directional Wi-Fi antennas similar to microwave towers. Such directional towers can deliver a signal as far as seven miles under ideal conditions (flat landscape, no obstructions). Deployment of so-called broadcast Wi-Fi has been typically limited to rural areas, where a series of Wi-Fi towers is easier to deploy than standard cabling.
But there is another use of Wi-Fi that also merits attention and is now starting to see deployment: Wi-Fi in multiunit buildings, whether hotels, offices, or apartment complexes. A good example is a current set of deployments in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Usurf America has deployed Wi-Fi towers to bring in broadband Internet access to a 240-unit building that otherwise couldn't get such high-speed services. While Usurf focuses on apartment complexes, the technology can be used for all sorts of building clusters away from high-speed data trunks. The state of Nebraska, for example, uses a directional Wi-Fi system to link a Roads Dept. vehicle-maintenance center to administrative headquarters several miles away.
What typically gets in the way of such installations is neighborhood opposition -- the "not in my backyard" (nimby) response -- to installing the radio antennas that broadcast the Wi-Fi signal, both the directional antennas that lead to the site and the omnidirectional antenna meant to provide the signal to the actual users at the site. It's a problem similar to the hassles that cellular providers have when trying to improve coverage by adding antennas to neighborhoods and end up facing fundamentally emotional concerns over radiation and aesthetics. But in new developments and buildings, it's often easier to address these concerns by factoring the antenna placement into the building or complex design. And in suburban and rural islands, highway, rail, and electric right-of-ways make good candidates for tower placement with limited neighborhood nimbyism.
Directional Wi-Fi makes a lot of sense for campus environments, whether white-collar office towers, manufacturing and warehousing facilities, or service centers -- or to connect them. Many enterprises can take advantage of directional Wi-Fi, and should.
The Bluetooth Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., last week meant a disproportionate share of Bluetooth product news, although the majority was on developments of interest to product manufacturers rather than to IT managers. Among the developments that IT should note are the following:
The week also saw several developments of interest to enterprise IT in other areas of wireless:
Got a great product or technology tip? Send it to email@example.com.
In line with other research firms, In-Stat/MDR saw the number of
802.11b hot spots deployed worldwide jump from 2,000 locations to 12,000 in
2002. In 2003, it expects continued high growth, with the bulk coming from
carriers and other large players entering the hot-spot market. Several European
providers are expected to become more active in the hotspot market in 2003, and
the providers in the Asia Pacific region will continue to demonstrate a high
level of interest. The North American market will get a push from the recent
announcement of AT&T-, IBM-, and Intel-backed Cometa Networks. (See the Dec. 9
edition of IT Wireless Insider for more on hot-spot trends and on
Cometa.) In-Stat/MDR has also found that hot-spot usage is
very low, with some providers supporting a user to location ratio as low as 7 to
1. To develop this base to a sustainable level, business models must shift,
price points must realign with user value perception (i.e., go lower),
consistency of user experience must be promoted, and new marketing and
promotional partnerships must be formed. In contrast to 2002
deployments, future hotspot deployments will be more focused on specific venues,
notably airports, hotels, and convention centers, In-Stat/MDR predicts.
While the cellular data market has been slow to materialize, there does seem to be steady progress in its deployment. IDC, for example, now projects that sales of so-called 2.5G cell phones -- those using the GPRS or CDMA2000 1XRTT technologies -- will surpass standard voice-only cell phones in 2005. It also expects that shipments of PDA/cell phone combos will reach 63 million that year. Both will help create the demand for wireless applications that connect to the Internet and to corporate data systems. Also, both Gartner and IDC say that the drop in cell phone sales has ended, and that a mild upswing is expected in 2003.
From IT Wireless
As an IT professional, you know that wireless technologies such as 802.11 promise to provide significant benefits to your organization. Before you go full steam ahead, you need answers to your critical concerns about wireless LANs. Questions concerning security, compatibility and best practices, to name just a few. IT Wireless magazine is now here to help you figure it all out. Look for the debut issue in January/February 2003. Get the included email IT Wireless Insider newsletter now.
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