Wireless network: next steps

Is WiMax the magic bullet for wireless networking in the next decade, or are current WiFi technologies good enough for the forseeable future? Here's a look at what to bet on as you build out your wireless networks.

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A world of instant communication was a dream for Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, and Nikola Tesla. They paved the path of modern communication and now businesses are set to reap the rewards as the next step is taken: Wireless.

Mobility-limiting cables are set to become a thing of the past with the many wireless solutions flooding onto the market. Currently there are six different types of wireless broadband networks commercially deployed in the country and Gartner has stated that Australia is now a "battleground and showcase for new wireless data services".

Findings from an upcoming Gartner report titled "Wi-Fi, WiMAX, and 3G: the battle has begun in Asia Pacific", show that despite the hype surrounding WiMAX, it will not be commercially available for at least three years.

"Why wait for WiMAX to provide last mile wireless broadband access, when users can take advantage of alternative technologies that are available now?" says Robin Simpson, research director, Mobile and Wireless at Gartner. "Australian businesses have recognised this, and the early signs are that they are prepared to pay for wireless broadband that gives them connectivity where they need it."

As both a financial and business hub for Asia-Pacific and with a population of more than four million people, Gartner considers Sydney a showcase for wireless data services. Several significant commercial networks are already deployed across the city, overcoming the infrastructure limitations and high costs of fixed broadband access.

The Gartner mobile connectivity report also proposes that the current wireless broadband technologies deliver what public Wi-Fi infrastructure promised but never delivered -- broadband and ubiquity.

"Hotspots were hyped as the technology providing ubiquitous wireless broadband coverage," says Simpson. "However, poor scalability means these will never provide the omnipresent access that business users require. They need true mobility, not the ability to read e-mails at the corner coffee shop."

"Why wait for WiMAX to provide last mile wireless broadband access when alternative technologies are available now?"

Robin Simpson, Gartner
Gartner expects that within two or three year's time WiMAX will become attractive to service providers, but in the meantime opportunities exist with the currently commercially available iBURST, IP Wireless, and Navini technologies. Which technology wins will be a matter of cost, the fit with existing infrastructure assets and skill sets, and timing.

"We believe that the Australian experience of providing wireless data services can be translated to any market worldwide with a significant installed base of desktop and laptop computers. Overcoming the challenge of last mile access through a truly mobile option is good for business, consumers, and the telcos themselves."

"One thing is certain," warns Simpson, "wireless broadband will change the way we communicate on the move. And in the heat of the battle, the carrier or operator that ignores wireless broadband will get lost in the dust of those who see the business opportunity."

Netgear's national ISP account manager Ryan Parker says that although wireless is still in it's infancy the future is looking bright.

"Although still in their emerging stages, 802.11x, 802.11n, and 802.16 WiMAX (see table below) will gain traction in the market, with many vendors already having their own pre-release interpretations of these standards," says Parker. "With the launch of the new Microsoft Media Centre PCs and Microsoft Extenders, we will also see the resurgence of the 802.11a standard, as it becomes the preferred medium for setting up the video network around the home.

  UWB Bluetooth Wi-Fi Wi-Fi Wi-Fi
Standard 802.15.3a 802.15.1 802.11a 802.11b 802.11g
Throughput 110-480Mbps Up to 720Kpbs Up to 54Mbps Up to 11Mbps Up to 54Mbps
Range Up to 30 feet Up to 30 feet Up to 300 feet Up to 300 feet Up to 300 feet
Frequency 7.5GHz 2.4GHz 5GHz 2.4GHz 2.4GHz

Standard 802.16d 802.16e 2.5G 3G 3G
Throughput Up to 75Mbps (20MHz BW) Up to 30Mbps (10MHz BW) Up to 384Kbps Up to 2.4 Mbps (typical 300-600Kbps) Up to 2Mbps (Up to 10Mbps with HSDPA technology)
Range Typical 4-6 miles Typical 1-3 miles Typical 1-5 miles Typical 1-5 miles Typical 1-5 miles
Frequency Sub 11GHz 2-6GHz 1900MHz 400, 800, 900, 1700, 1800, 1900, 2100MHz 1800, 1900, 2100MH

"As always, speed will continue to play an important role in wireless development; however range, reliability, and security are also significant factors driving this technology forward." Certification

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The first order of business will be ensuring that all of the new technologies use the same standards. That's where the Wi-Fi Alliance comes in. Recently the Alliance stated that it would not tolerate manufacturers launching equipment which was not formally certified.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is ensuring that the upcoming 802.11n standard -- which is planned to offer connection speeds of up to 135Mbps -- is adhered to in order to avoid the potential for customer confusion. They stated that they will revoke the certification of any product if it is proven to "adversely impact the interoperability of other Wi-Fi certified products."

The Wi-Fi Alliance is made up of wireless vendors, which could be why it steered away from directly criticising the past behavior of some members. It did, though, quote the concerns of a wireless analyst.

During the pre-standard technology for 802.11g a few vendors took advantage of unsuspecting buyers by releasing products that did not meet the standards.

"Left unchecked, the industry is unfortunately poised to repeat itself with 802.11n," says Ken Dulaney of Gartner.

The new standards are not expected to be set until 2006 and it is still unclear which of the competing technologies will be used in the final version. What is clear however is that the Alliance believes that irresponsible manufacturers attempting to make a quick buck could jeopardise the widespread adoption of Wi-Fi.

Nortel's Danny Ng says that the future world of wireless is an area of phenomenal excitement. "Wi-Fi is a fairly mature technology but now we are able to manage individual users and take the technology into areas where it couldn't go before such as outdoor and into hostile areas."

One of the next steps for Wi-Fi is to ensure that the service is more secure and dependable. The 802.11i standard uses a separate co-processor to handle data encryption, which means for example that current adoptees will have to uprgrade their systems to garner the benefits of increased security.

Maxed out
Danny Ng believes that WiMAX will be the next big thing to hit the marketplace and that it's ability to give wireless broadband access across cities, rather than smaller "hotspot" areas, will make it even easier for staff to work anywhere and everywhere.

WiMAX technology supports speeds as high as 70Mbps and a range of up to 30 miles, making it ideal for large corporate campuses and rural areas where cable and DSL broadband service aren't widely available.

The WiMAX Forum, which has more than a hundred members including Dell, Intel, Siemens, and British Telecom, is working to facilitate the deployment of broadband wireless networks based on the IEEE 802.16 standard by helping to ensure the compatibility and interoperability of broadband wireless access equipment. The organisation is a non-profit association formed in 2003 by equipment and component suppliers to promote the adoption of IEEE 802.16-compliant equipment.

"There is just so much potential and promise with it. It's an excellent technology and once the standard has compliant products it will aid so many businesses. One of the reasons we are seeing the push for wireless is the restrictions of cabling. Take Korea, for example, they are close to saturation point with their ADSL lines and the government is pushing wireless broadband. They continue to be a great example as to how the standard can be deployed and utilised," says Ng. Close Range

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Another wireless technology that is gaining momentum is Ultra Wide Band, which transmits data over a wide spectrum of frequency bands with very low power.

It can transmit data at very high rates (for wireless local area network applications).

Within the power limit allowed under current FCC regulations, Ultra Wide Band can not only carry huge amounts of data over a short distance at very low power, but also has the ability to carry signals through doors and other obstacles that tend to reflect signals.

Securing Mobility
During the past five years security was a major issue in preventing the adoption of wireless and WLAN, however, recent developments are making wireless the best solution for many companies.

"Around 90 percent of laptops will be wireless by around 2006. There are still some challenges but they will be overcome in time," says Adrian Crouch, Strategy Technologist for Ericsson Australia. "You can have wireless networks all over the place but if they don't deliver a quality service then nobody will adopt them. And you have to have standards set up to ensure transition from one product to another when using the same type of wireless. You also have to make sure that there is a seamless handover when you transfer networks."

Crouch says that speed upgrades will continue to make the business world's life easier and that we could easily see substantial speed upgrades within the next few years.

"We are looking at speeds of up to 100Mbps depending on what systems are being used. Ultra Wide Band will have incredibly fast wireless data transfer and will be used a lot in the consumer world for televisions, and so on," says Crouch. "There will always be a classic trade-off between speed and distance, but with the adoption of new wireless standards we will see more channels becoming available for high-bandwidth data transfer, which will greatly enhance the scalability of the network.

The battle begins
A recent survey by ABI Research shows that mobile telephony and WiMAX vendors may soon find themselves locked in competition for the same customers.

The telephone industry untethered fixed-line voice communications by making it wireless and mobile. Later as data became a significant portion of the communications, mobile designers modified their architectures and kept migrating up the data speed path.

In the GSM world we moved from the typical 40Kbps of GPRS to the 130Kbps of EDGE, the 384Kbps of UMTS, and now the upcoming 3Mbps of HSDPA, which finally makes mobiles a de-facto wireless broadband for voice and data.

From another angle, a suite of industry players have untethered fixed-line data communications such as DSL and cable and made them wireless; the standard they have formulated is WiMAX. They will also be able to do voice communications through VoIP. And the next extension of the standard will make it mobile. The result? WiMAX also equals mobile broadband for voice and data.

"It's only a matter of time before these two worlds colide," says Alan Varghese, ABI Research's principal analyst of semiconductor research. "HSDPA is an easy software upgrade from existing UMTS architecture, and mobile phone operators will be well on their way in 2005. WiMAX will need brand new networks and infrastructure, so the upfront costs and timelines may be more; but once deployed, WiMAX will offer very high bit rates and the possibility for new entrants to compete either using licensed or unlicensed spectrum."

And so the battle lines of the future are being drawn, pitting these two quite different technologies into the gladiatorial ring of users. Real-ity estate

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Accurate and fast property valuations are becoming an increasing necessity in the real estate industry as both buyers and sellers aim to waste as little time as possible in the purchase or sale of property. This has placed pressure on lenders, and property valuers to review their processes in order to cope with the quicker turnaround times while maintaining integrity and accuracy in the reports produced.

RPG, an integrated property services company, which performs residential and commercial valuations turned to software architects J3 Technology and HP to create a unique wireless solution utilising HP's iPAQ Pocket PCs. It has been so successful, it attracted Federal Government research and development tax concessions and the company has moved quickly to patent its industry-first business solution.

Today, RPG's mobile team of valuers can complete valuation reports on-the-spot, and transfer data to the company's main system in North Sydney, using GPRS and Bluetooth connectivity.

Business Challenges
RPG integrated property services is one of Sydney's leading valuation and consultancy firms. It was established more than a decade ago and has accreditation with more than 30 different lending organisations, most of them major banks.

In an increasingly pressured Sydney property market, RPG found that buyers, vendors and lending institutions were constantly pushing for a faster turn-around of valuation reports. Under RPG's manual system, the company's valuers would fill in forms while at a property location and then complete the report back at their office.

"Valuers had 10 days to complete a valuation. However, with the Sydney property market booming and demand for valuations increasing, we were increasingly required to complete a valuation within 48 hours," says RPG Managing Director Ron Gedeon.

How HP Helped
RPG turned to independent software developer J3 Technology to help it design an effective solution, incorporating the company's key business processes into a mobile device. J3's chief software architect James McCutcheon recommended HP's iPAQ Pocket PCs against other handheld options because of its simplicity and robust capabilities.

"We felt the HP iPAQs offered the most advanced and effective development tools, and would integrate easily into RPG's core Microsoft Windows environment, providing a stable and rugged solution for valuers in the field," says McCutcheon.

J3 Technology worked with RPG to custom-build the application, called the Remote Asset Valuation System, using embedded visual basic and .NET. The solution was designed to eliminate the need for any bulky papers and would allow the valuers to move easily around the building, accurately recording details as they went. The application was loaded onto HP iPAQ Pocket PCs with GPRS and Bluetooth connectivity achieved through compatible mobile telephones.

"To make the solution easy to use, we designed drop-down scripting screens that would provide the key sentences to be filled in, such as the precise land size or number of bedrooms," says McCutcheon.

Delivering values
The HP iPAQ solution has proven its worth. The company achieved a complete return on investment within the first year, despite the relatively small upfront investment. In the second year of the project, the company doubled its return on its investment. The solution continues to yield a remarkable return through the doubling of productivity without any added pressure placed on its staff. The third generation

Close range
Real-ity estate
The third generation

Wi-Fi, WiMAX, and other wireless solutions focus primarily on data transfer from fixed locations, delivering standard Internet access to a stationary point -- a point that commonly needs to be within line of sight of a base station to get satisfactory coverage.

The service delivered is usually standard Web access. With 3 Mobile, the advantages of high-speed wireless are delivered not only in a mobile sense (not stationary) but also on a platform which allows for a whole new world of rich multimedia services -- ranging from top 10 music videos and tracks, video news, sport and information, comedy and games through to PC-style mobile office services, stock quotes, and charts.

Purpose-built to handle the convergence of media, telecommunications, and IT networks, 3G is IP and open standards based. It is better equipped to handle high-speed mobile data, simultaneous voice, data, and video sessions, and location-based services utilising satellite global positioning technology.

Hutchison sees demand for 3G broadband wireless data access coming from professional users, all kinds of mobile workforces (particularly in sales) and industries where the visual is important to customers, such as real estate, interior and exterior design, and countless others.

Armed with a NetConnect 3G data card in their laptops, Australian business subscribers to Hutchison's 3G network enjoy high-speed wireless Internet access without the need to find a hotspot.

First National real estate agents in Dural use Hutchison 3's Motorola A925 handsets to show vendors the price properties are selling for, calculate distances from points of interest (schools, transport), call-up sales histories, and make appraisals and forecasts.

Pauline O'Neill, principal of sales, Dural First National says in a statement that the application has increased their efficiency by 25 percent.

"The ability to download, enter, and send data at high-speed and generate reports on-the-spot saves us an average of two hours per day," she said.

Hutchison director of technology, infrastructure and services, Michael Young, says business users can expect many more customised applications in coming months and into the future. In addition, speed, service delivery, and savings from this will continue to improve over the next few years.

"The capacity to do more at less cost is a key aspect of the competitive advantage of 3G," says Young.

"It costs less to deliver a kilobyte via a 3G network, so we are in a better position than GSM and WiFi to pass on savings for the long term," he says. "We will deliver 2Meg downlink speed by 2005-2006 and as much as 10 MPS by 2008."

"It will be an exciting journey. But the way we have kicked off fills us with great confidence about our current direction and great optimism about the future."

The carrier has just completed its latest network upgrade which means it can handle 800,000 users. Now planning its 2005 deployment, it has decided to skip the next stage in capacity upgrade will instead jump straight to 1.7 million customer capacity.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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