April 28, 2003
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Which Carriers Are Serious about Cellular Data?

802.11 technology, especially the 802.11b Wi-Fi variety, has gotten most of the attention this past year as the hot wireless conduit that opens up new business benefits and possibilities. But whatever happened to the so-called third-generation (3G) cellular technologies that carriers promoted just a few years ago? After all, the networks that deliver data at modem-like speeds of 50Kbps to 120Kbps — CDMA2000 1XRTT and GPRS — were finally rolled out last summer and fall in most populated areas of the country. While not nearly as fast as 802.11, cellular networks are close to ubiquitous, allowing connections almost anywhere, not just within relatively narrow hot spots.

Today, the new data networks seem to be used mainly to send digital pictures between camera-equipped cell phones — a very consumery, faddish use. While this is also useful to industries such as insurance claims adjustment, real estate, and security, the carriers' emphasis has been very much on consumer users. In fact, it's hard to find any cellular carrier actively pitching data services to the enterprise.

Still, several carriers are offering basic data services — essentially email/calendar and basic Internet access — via cell phones and PDA/notebook modems. Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless, T-Mobile, and Sprint PCS all offer these basic services under various calling plans. The first adopter of cellular data, Nextel Communications, goes further in offering Java-based applications for a variety of industries, such as construction, insurance, and transportation. (Ironically, Nextel has been focusing more on consumer users in the last two years, now offering wireless games in addition to business utilities.)

AT&T Wireless, Cingular, and Sprint PCS both offer telemetry services via cellular — a very logical application for businesses with mobile assets, from fleet rentals to delivery firms. And all three offer custom services for enterprise application integration, so you can, for example, allow PDA access over the cellular network to a sales force automation application. But the cellular carriers compete here with paging network-based providers such as Research in Motion, Palm, and Good Technology, whose always-on email networks (especially RIM's) have a solid track record with businesses.

T-Mobile says it will have more — but unspecified — business offerings in the future, since it recognizes that its Wi-Fi hot-spot service naturally attract business users and thus provide a conduit to businesses who may consider going beyond the hot-spot range via cellular data, with the added attraction of a common account for both login and billing. Sprint PCS also sees some synergy between Wi-Fi and cellular, though in my conversations with its marketing team, the Wi-Fi support seemed to be a reluctant nod to its popularity rather than a fundamental part of the carrier's data strategy. But Sprint PCS says that the fact that its cellular arm and landline arm belong to the same company means that it can serve enterprise users with a complete data solution, including dedicated landlines such as T1, 802.11 LAN s and WANs, and cellular data/voice services. Still, Sprint PCS expects to promote its data services through intermediaries — such as IBM, Accenture, Ingram Micro, and Siebel Systems — rather than emphasize the integration of enterprise solutions itself.

Overall, carrier support of cellular data for business use remains tepid, with Nextel, AT&T, Cingular, and Sprint more in the warm range. But no one is close to a boil. At the same time, cellular data faces a price issue: It's costly to access data over the cellular networks, even with recent price reductions by most carriers. Access charges can easily be $50 to $200 per month for someone on the road much of the time. In recent conversations with public safety, education, and hospital IT directors — the first two admittedly very price-conscious — everyone said they were trying to move to 802.11 technology and limit, if not eliminate, cellular systems because of their high ongoing costs. That'll throw ice on any aspirations the cellular carriers may have for business data services.

In the meantime, cellular data services are now widely available for specific tasks such as email and limited corporate data access, including telemetry data. Some businesses will find the high costs and limited bandwidth to be easily outweighed by its near-universal accessibility. As carriers improve their 3G networks, the paging network-based service providers will feel more pressure, since those networks are inherently limited in their data speeds. (Already, RIM, Good, and Palm offer their services over 3G networks from a variety of cellular carriers.) But emerging technologies such as UMTS-TDD and metro-area broadband wireless (802.16a) may outperform 3G networks while offering similar ubiquity.

For the time being, simple data services delivering concise information on handy devices almost anywhere seems to be cellular data's place in the wireless world. The wireless Internet so far resides just in the 802.11 world.

Got deployment experience and lessons to share? Let us know at news@it-wireless.com.

From our editors

A subscriber exclusive! IT Wireless's Winter 2003 Essential Products Guide is now available to subscribers. The 10-page PDF file contains a listing of key vendors and service providers, with summaries of their offerings and contact information. Categories include wireless network and client hardware, network and client software, and IT services. Download the directory now!

The Latest in Wireless Products and Tech

Three recent announcements underscore how rapidly 802.11 technology is moving from a set of disjointed point solutions to a comprehensive part of the enterprise network:

  • ReefEdge today announced its Wireless Services Fabric family of products, which includes the CS200 Wireless Services ConcentratorT, AirMonitor, and Multi-Site Manager. Their services include core packet-processing services for security and mobility; closely interlinked core management services for RF monitoring, reporting, and multisite management; and integration services for fitting the wireless LAN with existing network authentication, accounting, directory, logging, and management systems. ReefEdge says that the Wireless Services Fabric works with all existing access points and does not require specialized RF components. The Fabric also works with existing enterprise switching and routing platforms to manage data traffic delivery. The base model CS200 costs $15,000; AirMonitor starts at $5,995, and MultiSite Manager starts at $7,500; all are shipping now.
  • Trapeze Networks has announced a suite of access points, routers, and software tools meant to improve security across wireless LANs. The company says its technology respects existing security settings such as virtual LANs while adding its own identity-based security and access control to wireless networks. The Trapeze Mobility System starts at $9,500 for a starter kit, which includes one Mobility Exchange router, two dual mode Mobility Points (802.11a and 802.11b), the Mobility System Software, and the RingMaster management tool suite. Trapeze expects to begin shipping products in June.
  • Aruba Wireless Networks has unveiled a suite of wireless LAN switching systems for air traffic management, active user management, multilayer security, and wireless switching services. The product line includes the Aruba 5000, a modular wireless LAN switch designed for structured wireless deployment in the enterprise; the Aruba 800, a fixed-configuration stackable wireless LAN switch for branch offices; AirOS, a suite of embedded wireless LAN switching applications that "lock" the enterprise airspace, self-calibrate 802.11 networks, and track mobile users; and the Aruba 50 access points, which provide both user access and air monitoring. Base system pricing starts at $16,995. The Aruba 50 wireless access point costs $200. The Aruba 5000, Aruba 50, and AirOS should ship in June, while the Aruba 800 branch office switch will ship later in the year.

Palm plans to offer on May 5 the Tungsten C, its first PDA with integrated 802.11b technology. It includes a built-in point-to-point tunneling protocol (PPTP)-based virtual private network (VPN) from Mergic. It costs $499.

Boingo Wireless has released a new version of its 802.11 detection and login software that contains several enterprise-oriented enhancements: support for multiple Wi-Fi accounts, support for secure transmissions, and improved roaming ability. The software is used by people who subscribe to hot-spot access over the national Boingo network of 802.11 access points.

DeLorme is offering the $130 Earthmate GPS, a pocket-size Global Positioning Satellite receiver that connects to computers via a USB connector and draws power over the USB connection. This June, DeLorme will offer a $300 rechargeable Bluetooth wireless docking station that attaches to the Earthmate GPS receiver, so customers can use Bluetooth-enabled PDAs, laptops, and tablet PCs to wirelessly receive GPS signals in-vehicle.

Got a great product or technology tip? Send it to news@it-wireless.com.

The Latest in the Wireless Marketplace

There's more momentum behind the 802.11g specification for 54Mbps wireless data over the same spectrum (2.4GHz) as used by the popular 802.11b networks -- even though the IEEE has yet to finalize the specification. 802.11g has the advantage of supporting connections from 802.11b devices, unlike the 54Mbps 802.11a technology that uses the 5GHz spectrum.

T-Mobile has signed up another national chain to provide its locations as part of T-Mobile's 802.11b hot-spot network: Kinko's will install T-Mobile Wi-Fi access points in more than 1,000 facilities beginning this fall. T-Mobile already has hot spots in several thousand Starbucks Coffee shops, American Airlines lounges, and Borders bookstores, as well as at some airports.

The Federal Communications Commission has required that companies seeking transmission slots on communications satellites post bonds of $5 million to $7.5 million. The FCC is concerned that companies that win rights to use the slots will leave them unused to deny access by competitors and to keep satellite capacity artificially constrained. If a company doesn't meet its rollout target for use of the satellite capacity, the FCC keeps the money posted in the bond.

For advertising information, contact Manny Sawit at (510) 583-0855 or msawit@it-wireless.com

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