February 2, 2004
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Setting a Framework for Wireless Adoption

It's a cliché to say that wireless technology is hot, even though that is in fact true. Once the province of leading-edge companies such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service, which had large engineering teams to develop and maintain wireless infrastructure globally, it is now widely used throughout industry in all sorts of businesses and organizations. In addition to the 802.11b/a/g wireless LANs that have absorbed most of the industry's focus, enterprises can consider several other wireless technologies, including the paging networks, a new form of cellular data called UMTS-TDD, and an emerging standard for high-speed wireless network covering multiple city blocks called IEEE 802.16 (a.k.a. WiMax). But these are either specialty technologies or not yet ready for prime time. Most enterprises today will consider 802.11 and/or cellular data, and in some cases paging networks, Bluetooth, and radiofrequency identification (RFID).

In fact, a recent research report from Gartner highlighted that there is no wireless technology to meet all corporate business needs. Each technology provides different trade-offs in terms of bandwidth, range and cost, and the report thus concludes that businesses and their IT organization must unite to identify what to use the technology for and when to start doing it. It says companies developing a wireless strategy would need to support an array of wireless technologies such as wireless LAN, cellular data (often more than one type), and Bluetooth for at least another five years.

"We're pretty optimistic," says Adam Zawel, an analyst at the Yankee Group research firm. "Wireless has slowly, steadily grown, and there is still pent-up demand. We expect to see another 30% of enterprises do something wireless over the next four years," he says, up from the current 20%. Plus, the companies that have done one implementation are now looking at a second or third round, as they see how to move wireless into the core of their IT systems rather than leave it on its own island.

Ovum analyst Richard Dinen agrees: "We're seeing something of a thaw, so companies will start to replace legacy wired solutions with wireless where appropriate." But no one should expect a flood of deployments, he adds: "One can't blame them for approaching it a little gingerly. They still need to ask, 'Is it worth the investment?' "

"The fundamental driver for wireless is that the real-time connectivity delivers some sort of return," says Zawel. That return can be faster communication, more available communication, or lower infrastructure management costs. For example, "it's easier to add and drop nodes on the network with wireless LANs," says Ovum analyst Dinen. "One of the biggest costs [in IT] is the reconfiguration of the network as you add people or reconfigure the space," he notes.

In service-oriented industries, eliminating telephone tag, being able to check current inventory levels, and so forth can be critical advantages to both reduce inefficiency and retain customers. Cellular data services can keep field forces such as delivery staff, repair technicians, and salespeople connected at better-than-modem speeds throughout mostly urban and many suburban areas, as well as along major highways.

And in defined areas — such as warehouses, hospitals, and university campuses — a high-speed wireless LAN can ensure connectivity for both employees and visitors, while maintaining access security policies, no matter where they are. That can increase efficiency in, for example, truck loading and can, for example, ensure patient treatment is always based on the most current medical conditions.
Always-available wireless access may be nice, but enterprises need to decide whether it is essential. "A few minutes between synching isn't that much," Zawel notes.

Furthermore, with several technologies available, enterprises need to make sure they're not overdoing it. "Companies should think about how they should change their processes to take advantage of the technology. For example, grocery stores might want to dynamically change prices on the shelves, but wireless LANs are overkill for that — you could have a simpler paging network to do that," he says.

In many respects, the industries that are deploying wireless are the ones that have been pioneers in this area, with much of the effort focused on transitioning to the new standards. For example, public safety agencies are looking at cellular data services, as well as at outdoor 802.11b-based wide area networks, to replace the outmoded and in process-of-being-phased-out, 9.6Kbps Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) technology. Likewise, distributors and inventory management firms like FedEx and UPS are adopting 802.11-based wireless LANs in their warehouses, often replacing proprietary LANs.

"It's education, health care, retail, and distribution — the same old verticals," notes Gemma Paulo, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR. "We're also seeing some small businesses such as design and consulting," often because they are technologically self-sufficient and thus not hesitant to deploy a wireless LAN to save the cost and hassle of wiring their workspace. "Hospitals and education are the two top verticals for horizontal deployments," says Yankee Group's Zawel, while the distribution and transportation industries lead in more vertical deployments, he says. "In retail, there's a lot of testing." Lawyers and law-office staff, financial brokers, and insurance agents, and sales forces are also relatively heavy wireless adopters, notes In-Stat analyst Paulo. They tend to rely on the Research in Motion BlackBerry messaging devices, which use a paging network to transmit data and are starting to use the higher-speed cellular data networks such as GPRS and CDMA2000 1XRTT.

Analysts agree that there is opportunity for more adoption in the wireless-using industries, as tests deployments are moved to the next level and as departments and pioneer firms such as UPS make significant wireless commitments after their tests prove satisfactory.
Even in established wireless-using industries, Zawel sees opportunity for augmenting existing deployments. "A lot of transportation companies are doing something such as dispatch, but they're not yet doing routing with GPS [Global Positioning System]. Wireless is still a hot area [for this industry] but you need to look at upgrades rather than new deployments."

The proliferation of wireless clients — 802.11b and now even 802.11g is becoming standard in business-oriented notebooks, for example — is setting the stage for wireless adoption in the broader business community, says In-Stat's Paulo. Users set up wireless LANs at home and then start agitating for it at the office. "Today, we're seeing a huge uplift of laptops with 82.11 in them, but we're not seeing similar access point uptake," she notes, "but that will probably be a stronger trend next year."

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

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