Analysis: Faster standards signal a bright future for wireless

Wireless will revolutionise networks, cellular communications and the Internet in the next 10 years. Rupert Goodwins reports.

Nowhere will be untouched by the growth of wireless technologies over the next 10 years -- home, office, even the great outdoors are due to receive high-bandwidth, affordable radio connectivity. Even your own personage will be gently washed by wireless, if the plans of the industry pan out.

The home environment is seen as a major growth area, with the rapid increase of information appliances and Internet-borne services. The HomeRF consortium is a major industry group, which numbers Microsoft, Intel, IBM and 3Com among its 50-strong membership. It has published the Shared Wireless Access Protocol (SWAP), which combines elements of the 802.11 system with ideas taken from the European Digital Enhanced Cordless Telephone (DECT) standard to produce an inexpensive system communicating at 1Mbit/s or 2Mbit/s.

SWAP is designed to support real-time voice for telecommunications as well as IP services to link home devices to the Internet via a gateway in the home; the system is still under development as new ideas such as MP3 are becoming popular faster than the industry expects.

There are also growing demands from previously IT-agnostic sectors such as the toy manufacturers for a compatible cut-down version capable of being included in smaller consumer devices for an incremental parts cost of under £2.

Offices have been a major focus for wireless data since the industry began, and here there are movements towards 10Mbit/s networking with security and compatibility to the same standards as wired networks expect -- especially important since it is much easier to intercept radio transmissions from outside a building than it is to tap into a cabled network.

The basis for future developments will probably be the existing 802.11 standard, although at higher frequencies than the current 2.4GHz band. The biggest developments will probably occur in the great outdoors. The global cellular phone system is scheduled for a gradual upgrade from today's speed of 9600bit/s to a mixture of 384kbit/s universally and 2Mbit/s in high population density areas. This is expected to be in place by 2003, when the third-generation cellular service, Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) will become available.

There are a number of intermediate stages planned, including High Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD) going up to 57.6kbit/s, General Public Radio Services (GPRS) going to 100kbit/s, and the Enhanced Data rate for GSM Evolution (EDGE), going up to 384kbit/s. Simultaneously the support systems will evolve to allow packet-switched instead of circuit-switched connections, so the networks will run permanent IP links instead of dial-up. Further out -- literally -- companies such as Teledesic are planning wireless data at megabit rates through constellations of satellites.

From 2003, Teledesic is scheduled to offer 64Mbit/s downlinks and 2Mbit/s uplinks via nearly 300 intercommunicating satellites. At the other end of the spectrum, the Bluetooth consortium is planning a release of its radio data system at the end of this year. Originally conceived as a very low-power, high-speed replacement for cables, Bluetooth is increasingly being seen as a short range 1Mbit/s network that automatically configures itself as items of equipment come within range of each other. A large part of this will be personal area networking (PAN), where PDAs, laptops, mobile phones and the like automatically find and use each other to pass data and act as gateways onto other systems. The great concern in all these plans is standardisation, as every system has the potential to overlap with others. There are moves afoot to include all of the above ideas in UMTS, if not in direct interoperability then at least in having standards that allow two or more systems to coexist usefully.

There are associated issues in radio frequency allocations, protecting existing services and even in the basic control that nation states have over their broadcast systems -- when a £100 PDA can access any Internet data source at 2Mbit/s from anywhere on the planet, then there will be considerable billing, censorship and intellectual copyright issues.

Nonetheless, the wireless data market has never shown more promise. Whatever your plans over the next few years, you should keep a close eye on the radio.

Take me to the Bluetooth special


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