When Wi-Fi’s hot and not

24 Apr 2003

The current hype about hotspots with internet access available to anyone with the appropriately equipped laptop or personal digital assistant (PDA) focuses the spotlight on just one type of wireless networking.

But it is certainly not the most prevalent on this side of the Atlantic and is arguably either the least significant application of wireless networking or alternatively just a shadowy precursor of the coming age of ubiquitous connectivity.

The real impact of wireless so far has been in straightforward computer networking, notably for field sales and roaming managers who are frequently away from base but of course need to log on to the network when they come back to the office.

There is some confusion between these two different markets and applications, partly because both use essentially the same technology — Wi-Fi. This simple and catchy term for wireless networking has been perceptibly slower to catch on than its short-range cousin Bluetooth. The reason is probably that the Wi-Fi set of standards — IEEE 802.11 — is still in a constant process of development and extension. Most systems currently use 802.11b, but there are a and g variations and more in the pipeline. Wireless LAN (local area network) is another term in frequent use, since all of these of course are technically wireless local area networking.

The element of internet connection is another source of confusion: in a public hotspot such as an airport or hotel you are being offered internet access courtesy of a host network. Within an organisation, when you log on to your LAN wirelessly you now have access to whatever you are normally entitled to as a user — files and applications such as email and internet access.

For ordinary users, the salient points are simply the data transmission speeds and security levels of the different standards — important both for hotspot internet access and orthodox LAN connection.

Wireless has quietly but firmly established itself in the mainstream of local area networking, both for laptop users who are occasional visitors to their offices or as a ‘work wherever you like’ option to complement the fixed network. It is now an invaluable cabling substitute in conference rooms or awkward situations — old or historic buildings, for example — or temporary locations such as exhibitions or project offices.

“Adoption of wireless as an element of networking has been accelerating,” says Ray O’Connor, sales manager of 3Com. “Costs have come down and the technology has become more familiar. Probably most importantly, businesses now realise that security is not the problem that some media have suggested. Indeed it never really was but today we can have 128-bit encryption as standard — that was military level a couple of years ago — and access can even be locked down to specific devices as well as user password.”

So it’s really just on the hotspot public internet access that there is any real debate. The authoritative Garner Group pointed out last month that there is a current maximum of approximately 4,000 hotspots in all of North America with about 4.2 million self-defined frequent users. So a serious (ie profitable) market for service providers is some years away even with speedy growth. Taking a European view Forrester Research finds that: “Vendors like Cisco and Intel and telcos like BT over-hype the potential of wireless LAN internet access. Low European ownership of [wireless] enabled laptops, business case challenges and technology issues will limit its success.”

Taking up these points, O’Connor agrees that with just 5pc or so of laptops equipped with Wi-Fi cards capability — and perhaps more importantly public and business awareness — is still limited. “Internet email access is valuable, of course, but the real value in mobile working is VPN [virtual private network] access back to the user’s office network and that requires special setting up at both ends and is certainly another barrier inhibiting widespread adoption,” he says.

The next three years will see a huge increase in wireless on all fronts, confidently predicts Mike Galvin, Cisco country manager in Ireland. “The high end will see something like Moore’s Law, with power and capability doubling every 18 months or so. On the popular front as prices come down we will see instances of wireless communications deployed everywhere, for internet access but also for local services in retail, hospitality, entertainment and many other industries. Remember the early days of the internet when ISPs [internet service providers] were a thriving new business type and proliferated? Then the industry matured and simple access offered no added value so it consolidated and became a commodity service. I think wireless will follow a broadly similar growth path.”

Perhaps the key to where it’s all going is the ‘service selection gateway’ Galvin suggests. Devices and services will offer the mobile user choices depending on what is already subscribed to and paid for, free and public or supplied on demand as in the case of public phone booths. Simple email and internet can be always-on — by wireless LAN, public hotspot or 3G mobile telecoms. If the user invokes any other service, from local weather reports to parking payments to flight booking, it can be paid for ad hoc. If you look for an application or file on your organisation’s home network, a VPN will be set up with whatever security precautions has been pre-set. All of this will, of course, be simple and menu-driven for the individual user.

As for simple internet access, one way in which Wi-Fi offers an instant business model is in offering broadband access on a shared basis with low set-up costs to communities within its range of 100-150 metres per base station. Smaller business parks and multi-tenant office buildings, educational institutions, villages or just neighbours are simple examples that are already sprouting up, according to O’Connor. “Schools, libraries and other public local institutions could share broadband for modest subscriptions. We are seeing a lot of little projects, particularly neighbouring business, sharing the costs of broadband — quickly and without the expense and delay of cabling. Wi-Fi speed is already going up from 11Mbps (megabits per second) — fine for most normal business networking — to 54Mbps with even faster data speed promised in the near future. That offers a range of practical business applications limited only by the imagination of entrepreneurs and what users will need or pay for.”

By Leslie Faughnan