By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Retail's New Wireless Push
Although transportation and logistics are the leaders in wireless deployment, the retail sector is close behind. That's partly due to the logistics and distribution issues that retailers face, the same ones as transportation and logistics companies. So it's no surprise that many larger retailers -- some estimates are as high as 90% -- have deployed wireless LANs in their receiving and storage facilities at their outlets and stores. Their staffs can then scan goods using wireless handheld scanners as they come in to automatically update inventory and verify deliveries are complete and accurate. "More and more, they're not building a store without building a wireless infrastructure," says Frank Riso, director of business development for retail at Symbol Technologies, the dominant provider of wireless handheld scanners.
But retailers are finding that wireless can do even more than serve the back rooms. And with the wireless LANs already in place, adding wireless access points and devices in the rest of the store is simple. Symbol Technologies, which has the vast majority of the wireless scanner market (at least two thirds), sees strong movement to wireless deployment in two key areas:
Riso estimates that about a quarter of midsize and large retailers have at least pilot programs to test these front-of-store wireless applications. For example, Macy's department store in New York's Herald Square uses mobile registers -- they're on wheels -- to add cashiers quickly as needed during sales and other customer peak times. Riso expects supermarkets and discount stores to use the same kind of registers for sidewalk sales and for temporary springtime garden and December Christmas tree "departments" set up in front of the store or in the parking lot. The cost is small, about $300 to $500 to add the client bridge hardware to the register.
In Europe, several large grocers are testing wireless self-checkout, where customers use a PDA to scan items, then have the total deducted from a checking account. This approach has gotten little acceptance in the U.S., Riso says, because while Europeans are used to bagging their own groceries and don't expect any checkout service, Americans are long accustomed to being waited on at the checkout. Europeans are also more used to using PDAs and data-enabled cell phones, though even there usage beyond text messaging is low. In the U.S., Kmart has a more amenable approach: self-checkout kiosks, which use the same kind of price-code scanners as a standard checkout stand and the same kind of debit terminal -- it's just the the customer rings up the sales and bags the goods. No mobile device needed, whether yours or the store's. Naturally, store staff monitor the checkout kiosks to make sure no one bags goods that haven't been paid for -- that'd be harder to monitor if customers could use mobile devices.
Self-service gift-registry and custom-configuration kiosks -- sometimes wired, sometimes wireless -- are used in many stores, including Target, several electronics retailers, and several music retailers. These could also be used for customer price checks if scanners were attached.
While Riso says that retailers "were very concerned about security" for wireless systems that handle customer transaction data, most of those concerns were addressed last year through the deployment of access and data security protocols such as Kerberos. So most existing wireless networks' implementations are already set up to protect customer transaction information.
An emerging area for retail wireless deployment is the use of handheld sales terminals, which can process credit and debit cards (ones that include cash-drawer attachments are rare, Riso says, because of bulk and theft concerns). While an obvious technology for ballpark food sales, farmers markets, and flea markets, these can also let companies quickly handle sudden increases in customers, as well as make sales in areas such as garden centers and car-rental lots that involve bulky items and large floorplans. Movie and event ticket sales are another obvious venue.
Symbol is also investigating the use of wireless LANs to push sales messages and discount offerings to customers that scan in items while shopping. The idea is to offer the benefits of today's club cards -- providing discount coupons at the register in return for tracking customers' purchase habits -- during the shopping act itself, where the reward is more connected to the purchase or expression of interest. I'm dubious about such wireless marketing, as it requires work on the shopper's part -- scanning items -- in hopes of getting a discount, and will inevitably result in more rejected offers than accepted ones. I think most customers will treat it as an annoyance, as they did those flashing coupon boxes that some supermarkets installed in the aisles during the 1990s.
However dubious the wireless marketing future is, it's clear that wireless brings strong point-of-sales and self-service benefits to retailers, who already have most of the infrastructure to take advantage of them.
Is 802.11a Dead on Arrival?
First, Apple Computer announced earlier this month that it would use the forthcoming 802.11g 54Mbps wireless LAN technology in its next generation of notebooks rather than 802.11a, which also has a theoretical maximum of 54Mbps. Then, last week, Brent Mosbrook, a product manager at wireless chipmaker Intersil, provided an overview of 802.11 chipset sales that showed 802.11a sales have already flattened at a paltry 5 million units a year -- globally -- while overall 802.11 chipset unit growth tripled in 2002, with 35 million chipsets installed that year. It's expected to reach 140 million units in 2005, he says. Mosbrook spoke at the International Wirelsss Packaging Consortium technical workshop on in-building wireless. (Rival chipmaker Atheros Communications says about 1 million 802.11a devices were sold in 2002 -- devices sold is typically a lower number than chipsets sold -- but expects sales to grow in the coming years.)
What's going on with 802.11a? First, Mosbrook noted, most vendors have decided to skip 802.11a-only products in favor of dual-band 802.11a/b products, since there are so many 802.11b radios already deployed, and 802.11a technology uses a different spectrum band (5GHz rather than 2.4GHz) than 802.11b, so the two standards aren't and can't be compatible. 802.11g, on the other hand, is compatible with 802.11b. Second, 802.11a has a much shorter effective distance -- half that of 802.11b. Third, the demand for 802.11a/b chipsets, and the anticipated volume of 802.11a/g and 802.11g chipsets has already made chipset prices cheaper for them than for 802.11a-only chipsets. All that makes 802.11g -- whose standard is not yet formalized, so there are no shipping products as yet -- the likely successor to 802.11b. After all, it will accommodate today's installed base of 802.11b out of the box, and have comparable signal reach.
However, Mosbrook says 802.11a has a place. Although its signal range is shorter, it supports eight to 12 channels versus 802.11b's and 802.11g's three channels, so it can accommodate significantly more users within its signal range. That's important in crowded areas such as conference rooms and cubicle farms, although it does pretty much require users to have 802.11a/b or 802.11a/g radios in their wireless devices if they want to have wireless access elsewhere.
Companies looking to deploy 802.11 technology, or adding faster variants to existing 802.11b networks, need to be sure they understand the limits and advantages of 802.11a and 802.11g. I suspect that 802.11g will quickly replace 802.11b in new devices, from laptops to PDA cards to wireless access points, and the real question for IT will be "Do we need 802.11a for our densely trafficked areas as well?"
Ironically, as evidence mounts that most 802.11 traffic will take place in the 2.4GHz spectrum, U.S. Sens. George Allen (R-Va.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have introduced a bill that would urge the Federal Communications Commission to allocate more spectrum to the 5GHz range used by 802.11a. The senators want to increase the 5GHz spectrum range's allocation from a 325MHz band to a 580MHz band. The 2.4GHz spectrum range has an 83.5MHz band available, and it is used by many types of devices, including cordless phones, microwave ovens, security systems, baby monitors, and garage-door openers, not just 802.11b/g devices.
The intent of the bill is good, but I think it's the wrong part of the spectrum to be expanding. One positive effect would be to have the U.S. unlicensed 5GHz spectrum range match that in Europe, which would make product design and deployment easier. Today, 802.11a devices must be localized based on their markets' spectrum allocations or adapt to varying national spectrum allocations automatically. But getting more 2.4GHz spectrum would be more useful.
From our editors
Don't Miss A Beat
It's a fast-paced business, and it's easy to miss a breaking development or not realize at the time that something is significant. But IT Wireless Insider subscribers aren't stuck in the present: You can read past issues of the IT Wireless Insider online any time you want, without having to search your email box.
The Latest in Wireless Products and Tech
California Amplifier says it has developed "smart antenna" technology for 802.11 networks that lets an access point form transmit and receive beams, cancel interference and better use high multipath, non-line-of-sight channels, thus substantially improving performance. The company expects to see 802.11 chipsets in about a year that include its technology. The issue of smart antennas is increasingly important as companies seek to reduce leakage outside the building and to get the highest throughout within the building. Wireless access rates drop off very quickly, losing a third of their speed just 15 to 30 feet away in older buildings with concrete walls and wooden doors, testing by 802.11 chipmaker Intersil has shown. Signal quality also degrades over distance and through construction materials.
Last issue , we reported that Walker Wireless, a New Zealand broadband telecommunications company, will commercially deploy IPWireless mobile broadband technology across the major New Zealand markets, and we wondered why this technology wasn't in any major U.S. area. (The cellular technology that IPWireless uses, UMTS-TDD is supposed to run at 3Mbps, compared to standard WCDMA's 500Kbps to 1Mbps.) Well, just a couple days after that edition of IT Wireless Insider appeared, IPWireless announced that Clearwater Technologies is deploying the service in Jacksonville, Fla., whose metro area has a population exceeding 1 million. Clearwater is aiming for the 20% of residences and 50% of businesses that are in areas where DSL and cable modem service aren't available.
Other notable recent product and technology news include the following:
Got a great product or technology tip? Send it to email@example.com.
One of the biggest issues in making wireless useful to mobile workers is widespread availability. Wireless LANs have proven themselves in fixed locations, from conference rooms to warehouses, for several years. But what captures many users' imagination is the hot-spot concept, where they can be away from work or home and still be able to connect to the Internet and to other network services. This month, a great example of what needs to happen actually happened to make mobile wireless something people can count on: The City of Long Beach, Calif., announced it was deploying an 802.11b hot-spot network along its main downtown shopping street. The city of 400,000 near Los Angeles's busy seaport has set up free access at cafés along a four-block stretch of Pine Street, and it plans on adding such access to Long Beach airport, a regional hub that scaled back after military and aerospace industry slowdowns in the 1980s but is now growing again, and to other areas in and near downtown. Long Beach has several commercial corridors that would be fairly easily to bring hot-spot access to.
The city estimates the cost of the current deployment is just $3,000 per year, which it believes is will easily recoup by generating more business for local businesses, which will in turn bring in extra tax revenues. The city's free hot-spot system's home page, which users see when they first log in, includes information on city services, local facilities, and local businesses.
If cities throughout the country duplicated Long Beach's effort, there would quickly be a critical mass of hot spots, so business users could count on them. Smaller cities like Long Beach that have regional airports -- Oakland, Calif.; Ontario, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Austin, Texas; Milwaukee; Detroit; Cincinnati; Philadelphia; Charlotte, N.C.; Providence, R.I.; Hartford, Conn.; and Manchester, N.H.; just to name a few -- could also use these systems to encourage more business travelers. They would stand in sharp relief to the major airports that so far have limited wireless access to big-budget travelers (a dying breed) in airline clubs and a few public airport areas via fairly expensive subscription and one-time-access services.
Not that commerical hot-spot networks, such as the T-Mobile service at a couple thousand Starbucks coffeehouses, are bad. They provide a common logon and user experience in areas that business travelers tend to be in. But the price is still in the premium category, excluding the mass user base needed before businesses can rely on wireless hot spots as a conduit. Such commercial services can and should focus on issues such as supporting various security schemes, so business travelers with sensitive information (or working for companies whose IT departments strongly prioritize data security) get a real value-add for the access charges. And commercial services should benefit from the existence of free public hot-spots in major business zones, since they will seed the market with actual users who may become actual customers.
In a related development, InCode Telecom is deploying a pilot program with Canadian phone company Bell Canada to add 802.11b access points to public telephones in high-traffic locations. The aim is to make hot-spot access more ubiquitous by creating 300-foot zones around payphones in places like train stations, public squares, convention centers, and corporate campuses. Such an effort by a U.S. phone company to such hot spots could also help hot spots go from exotic to common, which needs to happen for businesses to rely on them. A combination of local free hot spots and broad-reach commercial deployments such as T-Mobile's and Bell Canada's will do the trick.
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