November 11, 2002
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless magazine
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The Dual-Radio Question

With prices plummeting on 802.11b access points and client radios, they've gained significant adoption both as add-ons and as embedded technologies within laptop computers. And the 11Mbps speed is as good as what many wired networks have offered for several years. Also dropping in price are 802.11a access points and radios, to about where 802.11b was a year ago. 802.11a offers 54Mbps speeds, so it can support faster data transmission, especially with multiple simultaneous users. But the two technologies use different spectrum -- 2.4GHz for 802.11b and 5GHz for 802.11a -- so products using one are not compatible with products using the other.

That raises the spectre of IT deploying and managing two parallel wireless networks, or junking its 802.11b investment to standardize on 802.11a. Such standardization is not really possible where users travel outside the business boundary, of course, since hot spots use 802.11b almost exclusively. (There's also a 54Mbps 802.11g using the 2.4GHz spectrum, but it's not in use yet because the standard is still under development and likely won't be finalized until spring 2003, so it's likely to miss its market opportunity.) While users can swap 802.11a and 802.11b cards, buy a new dual-radio card, or add an 802.11a card to a laptop that has 802.11b built into the case, the same is not possible for the access points.

This no-win situation has promoted vendors to promote dual-radio solutions, essentially delivering hardware that has both technologies. It's essentially putting two parallel networks into the same box.

But it's not that simple. The two technologies have different coverage profiles. Simplistically put, because 802.11a uses higher frequencies, it's reach is not as far as 802.11b's (just like FM radio signals don't travel as far as lower-cycle AM signals). That means the ideal placement of access points for 802.11a is different than for 802.11b. An ideal 802.11b dispersion would likely result in 802.11a coverage gaps. One option would be to overcover your building or campus from the 802.11b point of view, but that has its own problem: 802.11b interference could result. At this point, it's easier to simply have two parallel networks of access points.

Communications chip maker Bermai says there is a way to have your dual-radio access points without the 802.11b interference or 802.11a gap issues. Bermai is promoting its implementation of Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (ODFM) technology, which it says solves the differences in coverage profiles, allowing dual-radio placement in one access point. Sounds promising, but CEO Bruce Sanguinetti concedes that the products based on his company's chip aren't yet available, so who knows what will really happen in practice.

This leaves IT with three nonoptimal choices: Deploy two parallel networks of access points, hope for and wait for 802.11g (which is compatible with 802.11b), or hope for and wait for Bermai's dual-radio 802.11a/b chips to be embedded in access points. All this makes me wonder why no one realized this issue would occur several years ago when the 802.11b, 802.11a, and 802.11g standards were first being formulated. But that oversight now presents another needless complexity for IT to work around.

Good News, Bad News on Wireless Security

This may be a case of good intentions gone awry. The Wi-Fi Alliance, a vendor group, recently announced a new standard designed to shore up security for Wi-Fi networks. The new standard -- called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) -- is aimed at business customers who want better security. WPA will replace the existing Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) standard that uses fixed keys that can be figured out by readily available software, allowing unauthorized people to tap into a network. The WPA standard uses the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP), which generates new keys for every 10K of data transmitted over the network, making it more difficult to crack. Vendors expects to release WPA-based products in early 2003, as well as provide software and firmware upgrades to WEP-based Wi-Fi products. As of August 2003, all Wi-Fi-certified products must use WPA.

Obviously, better security is a good thing, especially given IT's fears over the relative ease of cracking WEP. Those fears are often cited as reasons IT won't adopt wireless technology, even though there are options such as virtual private networks that can keep enterprises secure. For example, ReefEdge, a provider of wireless network infrastructure products, found in a survey of 935 IT professionals conducted via the company's Web site that security was by far their number one concern, whether or not the respondents had deployed a wireless LAN. It was three times as important as cost or network speed. While not a scientific survey, the ReefEdge survey findings jibe with what analysts and other vendors hear from IT in their own conversations.

But, WPA may be a false start. It's actually a subset of the IEEE 802.11i standard under development and expected to be finalized in a year or so. The Wi-Fi Alliance and its members obviously believe that IT's security concerns must be addressed sooner than later so customers can commit to wireless deployments now. That's understandable, but it could leave the industry with multiple standards, creating technology incompatibilities that require further upgrades and changes by enterprise IT in the future. IT won't like that, and they'll remember grimacingly the hassles that similar divisions in modem standards (K56flex and X2) caused several years ago. At the very least, WPA means multiple upgrade cycles and security standards over the next two years -- WEP to WPA to 802.11i -- for IT to manage.

To be fair, the Wi-Fi Alliance is working with the IEEE 802.11i standards committee to lessen the possibility of a standards split, and many Wi-Fi Alliance members are involved in that standards committee. So at least we're not facing dueling private standards, as K56flex vs. X2 was or Sun Java versus Microsoft JVM is, which rarely resolve themselves to the customers' interest.

But I'd prefer that the IEEE issue a Phase 1 IEEE 802.11i standard to assure businesses that the interim technology will remain a fully compatible subset of the final version. As well-intentioned as the Wi-Fi Alliance's effort is, it opens up the door to the kind of standards deviation and even hijacking that plagues high-tech from time to time. That could be worse than a delay in 802.11i. Please, prove me wrong.

The Latest New Wireless Products and Tech

One of the more interesting and promising recent product developments is startup Vivato's Wi-Fi switching architecture. The company claims it combines gigabit Ethernet switching, Wi-Fi, and planar phased-array antenna design to send and receive multiple transmissions simultaneously and extend the range of Wi-Fi from meters to kilometers. Three levels of security will be provided: Wi-Fi encryption and authentication, virtual private networks, and rogue access point detection. Vivato's Wi-Fi infrastructure products will support standard IEEE 802.11b, 802.11a, and 802.11g client adapters. If these claims are borne out, large enterprises and campus environments (such as unversities, hospitals, transit centers such as airports, and convention centers) could use a single Wi-Fi switch to cover an entire floor or, if deployed outside, an entire building or campus. This would greatly simplify Wi-Fi deployment and maintenance, a key advantage to IT departments. But the technology won't be available for purchase until sometime before April 2003, so it's impossible to know if Vivato can really deliver what it says. Let's hope so.

It's easy to think of wireless technology as a white-collar phenomenon, helping salespeople and other office workers use their notebooks and PDAs anywhere in the building, at home, or in airports and coffeehouses. But the reality is that wireless technology is more deployed in vertical industries such as warehousing, transportation, logistics, and health care, where workers are mobile and their work is not about sitting at a desk and processing data. One such vertical industry that benefits from wireless is the maritime industry, and I was pleased to learn of KVH Industries' TracNet 2.0 Mobile Internet System. The enhanced service reduces rates 40% and increases Caribbean and Alaskan coverage. Users get modem-like speed as far away as 100 miles off the coast, so it allows cruise ships, fishermen, oil rigs, and other sea-based business maintain email and Internet connections from wireless and wired on-board computers.

Finally, here's something you can offer your business colleagues: Check out the new HarperBusiness book Going Wireless by Jaclyn Easton. It's an easy-read business book explaining how wireless and mobile technologies can be used in business. Don't expect any revelations, and certainly no technology insight, but it might trigger some business-strategy and ROI ideas in your company's business management team that will be helpful for them to know when you're ready to propose a wireless technology investment.

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The Latest in the Wireless Marketplace

The Federal Communications Commission last week allocated spectrum for third-generation (3G) cellular transmissions, the technology that promises to offer moderate-speed data services over the cellular network. Rules for the use and selling of this spectrum are due in 2004. The action provides two swaths of spectrum, including some begrudgingly ceded by the Defense Dept., for carriers to use. Carriers complain that they're not getting enough spectrum and that having two discontiguous swaths will increase their implementation costs. (Carriers can also use existing spectrum for some interim technologies like GPRS and CDMA2000 1XRTT.) This move will provide some certainty to U.S. wireless carriers seeking to implement 3G and the data services it allows. This should help the wireless carriers move beyond a series of unmet promises and actually deliver on 3G, now that one of their major excuses is gone (the other is lack of handsets, which manufacturers say is because demand is too low). The FCC indicated that the 3G market may not be as big as wireless carriers predict, citing disappointing adoption in the gung-ho cellular industry in Europe. Now we'll get a chance to find out.

According to European high-tech business magazine Tornado Insider, venture capital investment in the wireless sector in the third quarter of 2002 for Europe and Israel nearly doubled the total for the previous quarter: _140.2 million raised through 22 deals, an increase of 45% over the _75.8 million raised in 13 deals in the second quarter. But compared to year-ago levels, VC investment in the wireless sector was 53% lower, when _298.2 million was raised on 48 deals. (One euro is worth about $1.) This tracks with U.S. VC investments in wireless, which show that the wireless component has remained steady as a percentage of investments. I had been concerned that the telecommunications meltdown in 2001-02 would hurt wireless investments through guilt by association, but that appears not to be true. Such continued investment will be critical in ensuring that wireless technologies improve and thus become more beneficial for enterprises.


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