December 8, 2003
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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How 2003's Great Leaps Will Shape 2004
As the year closes, it's clear that wireless technology has made great leaps in 2003, yet in some respects it seems as if nothing has changed. This reflects the usual pattern of IT adoption, with a few early adopters creating buzz around a new technology, followed by a digestive period, then a second wave of adoption, again followed by a digestion period, and so on. I believe 2003 was a second-wave adoption period, with a large percentage of businesses implementing at least small wireless LANs to test their utility. Certain segments have moved forward quickly transportation, warehousing, logistics, and hospitals, followed by some retailers and field forces because wireless LANs open up new efficiency and service opportunities for staff that had been starved of computing resources. It's no exaggeration to say that wireless technology will bring the information revolution to the half of the economy that is not bound to a desk or workstation. But within general businesses' horizontal applications, wireless LANs have not yet become common infrastructure in lobbies, training rooms, hallways, and other areas through which staff and visitors transit.

Most of the attention and deservedly so on wireless in 2003 has been on 802.11 technologies, which provide high bandwidth to users within a fixed area. The 11Mbps 802.11b standard is by far the most popular, since it's been around for several years, but the 54Mbps 802.11g standard took off very quickly after its official adoption in June, leaving the same-speed 802.11a technology largely orphaned. 802.11a has a shorter signal range, and its chief advantage using a different spectrum that has less device competition than the 2.4GHz band used by 802.11b/g and other devices is also a disadvantage, since it requires two sets of radios and differing access point placement.

The public hype has been on public hot spots, which now seem to be everywhere, thanks to the very visible deployments at airports, hotels, and Starbucks coffee houses. But what remains unclear is the actual usage of these networks by travelers and whether there is a viable business model to support them. High initial access prices limited users to upper-level executives and gadget hounds, while also opening up the opportunity for free or near-free competition that could soon make pubic hot spots a cost center meant to attract customers an uneasy proposition if hot spots become nearly ubiquitous as expected rather than a revenue source. Experiments by McDonald's have already signaled that a race to the bottom, la phone service, may be developing. But it's not at all clear there are sufficient margins for such cuts, since like the tough Internet service provider business, there are transport vendors such as the carriers, local implementation vendors, and user-aggregation vendors (who provide the roaming) who each have different profit/loss thresholds.

The cellular side has been even more mixed. Several years after they were first promised, relatively high-speed networks are now available in many cities, offering modem-like speeds (and sometimes more) for cell phones, as well as for PDAs and notebooks equipped with a cellular modem. But there are multiple standards CDMA2000 1X-RTT, CDMA2000 1X-EVDO, GPRS, and UMTS-TDD and almost no roaming as each cellular carrier tries to build an exclusive user base. Most carriers have focused on faddish applications such as sending photos to a friend or to Grandma, leaving the business benefits largely restricted to executives who can't live without email every minute and perhaps insurance adjusters and real estate agents who for some reason need to transmit images immediately. Early services from Nextel Communications provided applications for contractors, builders, and related fields, but these seem to remain niche offerings. The usage costs are high as well. All this means that cellular data services will remain a niche product for the foreseeable future, outside the teen and new-parent markets.

And Bluetooth remains a dud. Compatibility remains its Achilles heel, so Bluetooth is becoming simply a means for predictable wireless transmissions, such as to open a Toyota Prius keylessly or connect a headset to a cell phone. The concept of interoperability among many devices for users on the go remains unfulfilled. It appears that Bluetooth will simply be a mechanism by which vendors will implement short-range-transmission products, not become a broader enabling platform as 802.11 (Wi-Fi) has become. Don't be surprised if "Bluetooth" fades away as a brand and is supplanted by products that just happen to use it. After all, no one cares what radio technology is used to make current wireless keyboards and mice connect to their PCs unless something drastic happens soon, Bluetooth will simply become one of the many technologies that only the engineers worry about to provide such connections.

The sleeper technology, of course, is radiofrequency identification (RFID), a system of passive or active tags that transmit location and other status information to access points in a fixed environment (such as a shipyard) or anywhere via Global Positioning System satellites or the cellular networks. This technology is not new, and in fact already has some broad deployments for toll booths and even payment at Mobil Oil gas pumps, but in 2003 it became a staple of discussion among retailers, transporters, and several others. In 2004, the buzz should turn to real action.

Looking to 2004, I expect to see the many 802.11 deployments within the enterprise expand. Already, vendors are jumping in to provide commercial-grade wireless LAN management tools, which means that wireless networks are being used for true commercial-grade applications. Management will become a key issue, both to ensure that wireless networks can follow enterprise network policies and to implement the many security mechanisms now available. As is typical, small vendors will first meet this need, giving early adopters tools to try but providing an excuse for most enterprises to wait and see leading to another cycle of early adoption followed by digestion.

In 2004, I expect the first-adopter industries to make wireless deployments near-standard, since their business cases have already been proved and their specialty vendors have solved most of the current security and management needs. IT's issues here will be on exploiting the systems further for better, more innovative applications. Voice over IP is one of those applications, and I'm sure that others will emerge instead of the usual "video on demand" examples that vendors always trot out for each new technology platform. I further expect the second wave of adopting industries to have pioneers that prove the case for their industries. For example, in 2004, retailer Wal-Mart Stores will bring the legitimacy to RFID within the retail community that logistics firms Federal Express and UPS brought to 802.11 within the transportation and warehousing industries a couple years ago. That in turn will provide the example and catalyst for successive industries to find ways to take advantage of RFID.

None of this is surprising if you follow the multidecade pattern of previous information technologies. Industries new to wireless will have solid examples of successful deployments, management, and business benefits to help justify their own adoption, while early adopters will continue to find ways to exploit wireless connections to create a more real-time, on-demand environment away from the desk, eventually spurring more adoption by the business community at large. 2004 is the year that two key wireless technologies 802.11 and RFID move to the next step in their adoption curves.

Got deployment experience and lessons to share? Let us know at

From our editors

Get a printed set of our new 2003 market overview plus IT Wireless case studies and IT Wireless analyses in the IT Wireless Report: Trends, Analyses, and Case Studies of Wireless Deployment in the Enterprise. Use it as a handy reference. Share it with your colleagues and staff! You also get a PDF version immediately upon purchase. PLUS! Subscribers get 40% off the $100 cover price and free shipping to U.S. addresses!



The Latest in Wireless Products and Tech

At the Wi-Fi Planet show in San Jose, Calif., last week, most product and technology announcements involved industry partnerships or extensions to existing products. For example:

Among the completely new products was Berkeley Varitronic Systems' Firefly, a Wi-Fi analyzer that helps IT managers maintain network throughput and security by recognizing and identifying abnormalities in 802.11a/b and Bluetooth network traffic. Firefly's core application software creates relational databases of information about a wireless network of remotely configurable Fireflies, with each Firefly containing up to 10 calibrated receiver modules. This configuration lets users collect wireless LAN parameters such as MAC, SSID, RSSI, PER, and WEP and then identify and locate failed authentication attempts and measures channel usage. Optional D-Fly direction-finding antenna scans all channels and/or rests on one channel to remotely survey and protect a wireless LAN's perimeter. A motorized DF antenna spins around in progressive steps hunting for specific or any access points (friendly or foreign, as defined by the user). IT security teams have access to Firefly's database core via the Internet for extended monitoring of traffic patterns and real-time Wi-Fi network data.

Separately, Avocent has announced LongView Wireless, an 802.11a-based keyboard, video, and mouse extender that can be used to wirelessly connect monitors, keyboards, mice, and audio devices to a computer up to 100 feet away. LongView Wireless features video compression and protocol technology that supports the transmission of 24-bit color up to 30 frames per second.

Also, Cisco Press has released 802.11 Wireless LAN Fundamentals, a guide for IT and network professionals.

Got a great product or technology tip? Send it to

From our editors

A subscriber exclusive! IT Wireless's Fall 2003 Essential Products Guide is now available to subscribers. The 19-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 the Wireless Marketplace

New research from consulting firm InfoTech identifies the key factors that will let wireless LAN penetration in U.S. enterprises reach 80% by 2008. "Although WLAN technologies are currently deployed in nearly half of all U.S. businesses, 75% have limited deployment of wireless infrastructure and devices to a tenth of their total workforce," says Scott Drobner, the wireless program director at InfoTech. "This narrow adoption will persist until much-anticipated applications, such as voice over wireless LAN, have been deployed by market-leading enterprises."

During this same period of time, in-building mobile business users using multiple wireless technologies will rise from 14.8 million people to 30.8 million 40% of the mobile workforce by 2008, InfoTech predicts. Despite this segment's strong use of cellular telephony and wireless data applications, mobile service providers have been slow to provide adequate in-building coverage for wireless services. Over half of surveyed businesses voiced strong dissatisfaction with current in-building coverage," adds Drobner. "The traditional mobile boundaries will continue to blur as wireless business users no longer perceive in-building and out-of-building as separate domains putting further pressure on providers to achieve ubiquitous coverage."

Meanwhile, the CDMA Development Group (CDG), an industry consortium, says that the subscriber base for 3G CDMA2000 1X-RTT and 1X-EVDO has expanded by 10.5 million in the third quarter of 2003 to reach 64.5 million users, while the total number of CDMA users worldwide grew to 174 million during the period. The CDG expects the CDMA2000 user base will reach 75 million by the end of the year. According to the EMC Database, CDMA2000 accounted for 54% of data users worldwide and 74% in regions outside Western Europe in the second quarter of 2003. While only 2% of worldwide GSM subscribers use GPRS data services, more than 14% of CDMA subscribers use CDMA2000 data services, according to the CDG. Today, one in four CDMA users in the Americas has access to 3G services.

In hot-spot news, customers of several hot-spot networks Boingo Wireless, iPass, Sprint, and STSN now have access to Concourse Communications' public hot spots at the LaGuardia, JFK International, and Newark Liberty International airports in metropolitan New York, and will soon have access in the Detroit-Wayne County Metropolitan Airport and the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. Sprint's Wi-Fi customers also now have access at Kansas City International Airport, near Sprint's headquarters in Overland Park, Kan.

Finally, the small Los Angeles suburb of Cerritos has deployed an 8.6-square-mile public hot spot throughout the entire city, using wireless mesh technology from Pronto Networks and Aiirnet Wireless.


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