All-wireless office launches at Japanese company

The completely wireless office has remained the holy grail of wireless aficionados for years, but when will it truly happen? When will all the workers in a company be able to cut the wires and operate with voice, data and video running over Wi-Fi to the cellular network, or an assortment of other networks?

Well, it just so happens that attaining the wireless office is more than a parlor game for theoreticians and, in fact, is beginning to take shape.

The largest announced wireless office deployment so far is at Osaka Gas in Osaka, Japan, according to Ken Dulaney, a Gartner analyst who studies such matters.

About 6,000 dual mode (Wi-Fi and cellular) phones were deployed from May 2005 to March 2006 at Osaka Gas’ offices throughout Japan for Osaka’s 6,000 full-time workers, said Koji Matsumoto, manager for the networking technology team, in an e-mail interview conducted with the assistance of an interpreter.

Even so, the deployment is not without compromises to the wired world, he said. Osaka still has an additional 6,000 wired phones, including 4,000 that are IP-based and used for 3,000 temporary workers who don’t need the wireless mobility. Another 2,000 wired analog phones are being kept for emergencies such as loss of power in an earthquake, Matsumoto said.

Matsumoto said the total investment in the project was about $10 million, an amount that will be returned in two years because annual costs have dropped by $5 million, due to reduced costs for maintenance, operations and telephone charges.

The system is built to rely on a maximum of 10 simultaneous calls to each Wi-Fi access point, meaning that the 11th call gets a busy signal, Matsumoto said. Meru Networks provides a Call Admission Control server used to coordinate peak levels of traffic, and Osaka officials can also add more access points for areas of heavy demand, Matsumoto said. "We have not experienced any fatal troubles so far," he said last week.

To reduce cellular network charges, Osaka has relied on a Least Cost Routing function built into its Session Initiation Protocol servers, Matsumoto added. With the LCR technology, a cellular phone number is converted to an extension number for use within a wireless LAN area. Also, a cell phone can be considered a fixed line phone for calling to a cell phone outside its extension area, to further lower costs. Annual costs at Osaka have been reduced by about 30%, according to Kamal Anand, vice president of product management at Meru.

The greatest technology obstacle in setting up the system was providing efficient WLAN configurations in nearly 50 offices through Japan, Matsumoto said. "The transparency and reflectiveness of radio vary from building to building, from floor to floor or from room to room," he said. "There is no general way of designing and configuring wireless LANs."

In addition to WiFi configuration problems, some Osaka employees were reluctant to give up their wired phones, said Toshi Kibe, president of Nissho Electronics USA in Santa Clara, Calif., which provided integration services on the project. "Usage now is good ... but some people didn’t like the idea of wireless," Kibe said. "They have a lot of older guys who needed time to get used to it." One adjustment was having to remember an extension number to be able to transfer a call over wireless, he said.

Meru announced the Osaka project at its inception last July, noting that it would rely on Meru’s WLAN System for voice over IP, and would use Tokyo-based NTT DoCoMo’s dual-mode cellular/Wi-Fi service and handsets. Meru also has a partnership with three top VoIP systems manufacturers in Japan, including Oki Electric, Hitachi High-Technologies and Fujitsu I-Networks. Meru competed against Cisco, NEC/Airespace and Aruba Networks for the Osaka job, according to Meru officials.

A spokeswoman for Meru said the company has more than 250 customers and is working on an even larger all-wireless office deployment in Asia, as well as with other vendors on a large system for a U.S.-based school system.

Generally speaking, the Osaka experience shows an all-wireless office is attainable, Dulaney said. "Now that it’s been done by a credible enterprise, others should look at it closely," he said. "Many customers have called me regarding the all-wireless office, but I would be pleased if we got even 1 percent penetration. It’s hard to get there mentally for many companies."

More dual-mode phones and related networking gear are needed in the market, but "we also need companies to envision the all-wireless office," Dulaney added. "It’s tough."

This story, "All-wireless office launches at Japanese company" was originally published by Computerworld.

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