Two of the latest plans for wireless data - the IEEE's Wi-Max and cellular's EV-DO - promise high speed and ubiquitous access, but users remain wary.
While users enjoy the boom in wireless access, IT managers still are looking for more out of their wireless infrastructures. Distance and speed limitations of wireless LANs make planning for comprehensive campus-wide or metropolitan-area deployments very challenging. And the piecemeal costs of wireless hot-spot access create billing and budgeting nightmares.
Two new initiatives - the IEEE's 802.16 Wi-Max standard and the carriers' Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) networks - aim to alleviate these woes. With Wi-Max, enterprise IT managers will be able to build campus-wide wireless networks with transfer rates as high as 70M bit/sec. EV-DO, on the other hand, offers mobile workers with laptops and other devices high-speed wireless service with data rates of 300K to 500K bit/sec. The approaches vary, but the goals are the same: ubiquitous and easy-to-manage wireless access.
Taking wireless to the Max
The initial deployments of Wi-Max, due later this year, will follow the IEEE 802.16d standard, which specifies connections based on fixed-antennae locations. (A mobile version will follow late next year.) The estimated cost of fixed deployments will be about $500 for a base station and card.
While Wi-Max outpaces Wi-Fi with its impressive data-transfer speed, its real attraction is in coverage distance. High-speed Wi-Max networks with line of sight to an antenna reportedly can stretch 30 miles; without line of sight, the distance shrinks to 5 to 10 miles. Either way, this is far beyond the thousands of square feet that Wi-Fi networks offer.
"Wi-Max is the fit between small wireless and big wireless, between Wi-Fi and 3G," says Bruce Fleming, divisional technology officer for Verizon Federal Network Systems.
Wi-Max, which operates in the 2-GHz to 11-GHz range, has widespread backing. Supporters include Intel, which says it will debut its Wi-Max-enabled silicon later this year, and gear makers such as Alvarion, Aperto Networks, Proxim and Redline Communications. These vendors all have announced 802.16 equipment plans. On the carrier side, Verizon will start piloting Wi-Max by year-end. Fleming says he expects a rapid ramp-up into mid-2005.
Wi-Max proponents pitch the standard as everything from a way to create on-the-fly networks rapidly in hard-to-wire rural areas to a competitor for costly last-mile service.
Allen Gwinn, senior IT director at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says he is hopeful but skeptical. He has been tracking closely the progress of the Wi-Max Forum, the industry body responsible for certifying product interoperability. "Right now, this is all pie in the sky," he says. "We don't know what this technology is. We're operating off of big 'ifs.' "
Gwinn says if all goes well, he will employ Wi-Max as a replacement for his last-mile connectivity. "If you ask people what their goal would be for Wi-Max and they were being honest with you, they'd say to get rid of Ma Bell," he says. "That's the most costly and challenging part of access."
At SMU, Gwinn supports 18,000 students, faculty and staff on and off campus. "Anywhere I can save the cost of digging up the street and sticking fiber in the ground, that's going to save money. And places where I've put copper in the ground - if I could replace that with Wi-Max, I could see speed increases," he says.
Bob Newman, vice president of datacom services at Web design firm AdPlex-Rhodes, says he also hopes the Wi-Max buzz is more than just hype. He's looking to Wi-Max to address what he sees as a gap in service provider offerings - true redundancy and disaster recovery for his production facilities in Houston. Because AdPlex-Rhodes manages digital assets for major Web sites such as NASCAR.com and American Airlines.com, "we can't have the system go down," Newman says. He'd like to implement the standard as backup for his T-1 network that is vulnerable to damage by a backhoe.
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Today's back-up solutions are not practical, Newman says. "We can run lines into different sides of the buildings, but there are infrastructure costs - such as conduit placement - and ongoing service costs." And those lines are still subject to backhoes or other mishaps, he adds. "Wireless is the only true redundancy," he says.
With the high and unpredictable cost of T-1 lines, and cable and DSL connections difficult to come by in some markets, industry experts are predicting that wireless as a back-up and local access option will gain momentum.
"IT managers want to deal with at most two service providers. However, many are dealing with 10 to 15 service providers. Wi-Max deployments would allow them to resolve this headache," notes Robin Gareiss, chief research officer at Nemertes Research. Service providers and equipment vendors would be foolish not to look at technologies such as Wi-Max as a replacement for local loop access, she adds.
EV-DO to the masses
Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO), too, is a no-brainer for the cellular carriers, says Clint McClellan, senior director of strategic marketing at Qualcomm, which provides EV-DO chipsets. "Sprint and Verizon have spent years spreading out their voice networks. With EV-DO, all they have to do is add a channel card to their cell site base stations and they can offer data-optimized services. It's very cost-effective for them," he says.
That has Verizon also immersed in EV-DO trials for high-speed access. Getting a head start on rival Sprint, the carrier rolled out the 3G-class service in Las Vegas, San Diego and Washington, D.C., this year and says it soon will announce more cities. Sprint plans to have EV-DO service available in major metropolitan markets by mid-2005, says Peter Cannistra, director of high-speed wireless data at Sprint.
Jim Linn, IT director at American Gas Association (AGA) in Washington, D.C., says he hopes EV-DO can address his most pressing needs in supporting wireless users - ubiquitous coverage and streamlined billing. All a user needs for EV-DO is a PC air card, which costs between $150 and $300.
"Right now, I've got accounts with Wayport, T-Mobile, you name it," he says. "I'm hoping for consolidation - no different accounts, no different billing."
Linn says he's stuck in a mire of decentralized mobile access. Users log on to hot spots wherever they are - hotels, airports, coffee shops, etc. - creating piecemeal bills for access that are impossible to manage. "My budget doesn't cover any of that," he says.
Linn supports a mobile workforce that spreads to urban and rural areas. AGA members are sometimes in small towns with little to no network access.
"In places with limited connectivity, phone lines can be expensive," he says.
His users are mostly sending and receiving e-mails, accessing presentations or file sharing, so he doesn't need to waste his time on high-end application support.
He says he hopes that the advent of EV-DO, which touts expansive coverage areas, will help gain some efficiencies. He aims to buy one corporate package that allows universal access to wireless broadband services.
However, Linn hasn't jumped into any of the pilot programs being offered in his area. "My preference is to wait and see that it's working," he says. "Carriers are making a lot of promises that would be hard to follow up on, and I'd hate to be disappointed. I tend to be optimistic, but I don't want to build up the hopes of end users."
Like Linn, Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group, says, "EV-DO is for people who would normally be doing dial-up or people who have broadband in the office and now want it on the road," he says.
While overall he's enthusiastic about EV-DO's promise, Mathias is realistic about some of the hype. "We're not going to come close to reaching the data rates being touted," he says. (For example, Qualcomm's McClellan cites peak rates of 2.4M bit/sec.) "Those are burst rates. There is overall data latency, cellular network latency and your network latency."
Also, IT managers need to keep the access simple, Mathias notes. Don't try offering access to complex applications such as databases or custom programs, he says.
Wayne Hoffman, chief technologist at systems integrator Ponvia Technology in Chicago, agrees - high-speed wireless isn't for everyone, he says. "It may work great for the salesforce in primarily metro areas, but not for a serviceforce that requires a complex application," he says. "We don't have ubiquity in coverage yet, so the decision is going to be application-specific."
But the potential productivity promises of high-speed wireless are indisputable, Hoffman adds. Think of how much more work people can get done if they "don't have to come into the office to sync, if they don't have to spend 10 minutes in the morning on dial-up lines syncing in a hotel room, if they don't have to search around for a connection," he says. "Eventually, data transfers will be pervasive - packets will be transferred from wherever, whenever."
Gittlen, formerly Network World's events editor, is a freelance writer in Northboro, Mass. She can be reached at email@example.com .
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