January 24, 2005
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Key Wireless Directions for 2005

About 15 years ago, media pundits were proclaiming the year of the LAN. They actually did so for several years, and then one year we all looked back and realized that the LAN had quietly become an integral part of the network. There's a similar phenomenon with wireless networking. For several years, pundits have claimed that this would be the year of the wireless LAN or of third-generation (3G) cellular data services. I won't be so foolish to as to say that this is the year of the wireless LAN or of 3G, but I will say that this is the year that both technologies become broadly acceptable, no longer the province of early-adopter companies, rogue employees, and highly mobile industries such as transportation and hospitals.

3G Finally Arrives

The more obvious development this year will be the arrival, finally, of 3G. Carriers were promising this technology as early as 1999, but it's only now truly being deployed in the form of CDMA2000 EVDO networks, principally from Verizon Wireless and haltingly from Sprint PCS. Cell-based users will finally get speeds that make their PDAs and notebooks full network citizens, 300Kbps and up, similar to early DSL. Just as DSL and cable modem technology made the home office and the small satellite office equal to the main office, so employees' presence became less an issue to stay truly connected, so will the deployment of EVDO technology this year.

Verizon hopes to have EVDO on about half its network within a year, and Sprint hopes to begin deploying in a half dozen cities by this time next year. Expect it first in major metropolitan areas, where sales forces, field forces, and traveling execs will discover that for about $80 per month that they can open PowerPoint attachments in their email and open PDFs stored on the network as if they were at home. Today, the pokey performance of GPRS and CDMA2000 1XRTT forces most companies to limit usage to just the message body or to custom mobile applications that transmit the minimum data needed, almost like a terminal emulator. EVDO will let mobile devices waste just as much bandwidth as our office and home networks do, but also let them run the same kinds of rich applications. Salespeople can trade PowerPoints to their hearts' content, executives can update Excel financial workbooks while in the taxi to the airport, hazard-materials teams can examine full-color simulations of toxic-spill plumes, insurance adjusters can send detailed photos of damaged property for claims processing, and property managers can transmit inspection videos as tenants move in and out.

The fact that the first real 3G will be restricted to the CDMA side of the cellular duopoly should benefit the business markets for Verizon and then Sprint, which is also digesting Nextel and must also upgrade that carrier's largely business customers to the new technology. The two major GSM providers, Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile, will be two or more years behind Verizon, since both have opted to wait for the HSDPA technology that provides similar throughput. They could have moved to the slower UMTS technology instead, but both opted to wait for HSDPA, so they would not have to upgrade their networks twice in as many years. Their customers will need to decide whether to wait or switch their technology including cell phones, "smart" phones, and laptop cards to EVDO. GSM-based businesses may live without high-speed cellular to save those costs and to stay compatible with the majority of the rest of the world that also uses GSM-based technology.

Wireless LANs Go Overlay

The first wireless LANs were typically test deployments on a separate network segment to provide a quick cut-off in case of intrusion. That works fine in environments where the mobile workers are separate from the rest of the employees, such as a factory floor in a separate area from the headquarters staff. But to truly take advantage of wireless LANs, they need to be wherever employees are. For example, the foreman on the factory floor shouldn't lose wireless access when he goes into the accounting department.

2004 saw the release of several enterprise-grade wireless LAN management tools that let you manage wireless networks similar to how you already manage your wired ones. Some  such as those from Airespace, AirWave Networks, Aruba, Roving Planet, Trapeze Networks, and Wavelink are separate tools for the wireless LAN that handle policy servers, signal strength, access point configuration, and authentication. Others are plug-ins to or extensions of traditional LAN management tools from companies such as Computer Associates, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM Tivoli.

This management is critical to letting wireless LANs coexist with wired LANs, so they can act as an overlay network that users can shift to and from as needed. This is a more complex network to manage, but it provides the flexibility the enterprise needs. With the tools to administer them now available, using familiar wired-network controls wherever possible, IT can now realistically deploy wireless as an integral part of the network.

Three  other developments will help encourage the deployments of wireless LANs as overlay networks.

One is the release of the IEEE 802.11i encrypted-authentication standard last summer, which will finally put to rest the fears over wireless LANs' security. The 802.11i technology provides a credible first line of defense for wireless LANs,and when supplemented with well-known, familiar technologies such as AES encryption, virtual LANs, and other remote-access protection, methods network managers should be honestly comfortable in their wireless security status.

The second is the recent spate of acquisitions of wireless pure-play providers by broader networking companies. The networking industry has finally begin putting its money down for wireless, after letting startups do most of the initial heavy lifting.

The third is the interest in Voice over IP (VoIP) digital telephony. Wireless LANs, if properly configured, can support voice service as well even in the denser carpeted office environments. As enterprises see that they can add mobile voice service easily to their VoIP deployments by configuring their wireless LANs more densely and more intertwined with the overall network at a small incremental cost, the more they'll do so.

Unlike the 3G trend, the shift to integrated, overlay wireless networks will be largely a quiet phenomenon, becoming a best practice at first and then ultimately a standard practice. It won't get much hoopla, but it will make wireless mainstream.

Hot Spots Cool Down

The third major trend will be the deemphasis of Wi-Fi hot spots, which seemed to sprout like mushrooms last year in coffee shops, burger joints, copy places, hotels, airports, train stations, urban centers, and even RV parks and golf courses.

There's not much of a business case for them, and there'll be less as 3G takes hold, providing all-you-can-eat, anytime, anywhere access for $80 per month or less. I've already encountered one firm that has stopped reimbursing its field forces for hot-spot and high-speed hotel connections, since those costs quickly climb past the all-you-can-eat cost of 3G. This will make most hot spots the province of more casual users students, Bohemian workers, and infrequent users and of small-suburban and rural dwellers who don't yet have 3G in their areas.

I expect free hot spots to continue to grow, as cities make them part of the public infrastructure (Philadelphia and Detroit have already started, and Minneapolis-St. Paul is considering it, even though the phone companies oppose the efforts) and as more businesses treat them as low-cost amenities to retain customers. But the business action will move to 3G.

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

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