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Carrier-class WLANs: Let’s get serious

Jun 02, 20043 mins
Cellular NetworksNetwork SecurityWi-Fi

* Public Wi-Fi should have formal watchdog

Someone recently asked me whether 3G cellular networks or Wi-Fi hot spots would “win” in the hearts and minds of traveling enterprise users. First off, in my experience, it seems that rarely does one networking technology flat-out win over another.

Usually, there is room for multiple kinds of networks to solve different application needs and satisfy user preferences. That’s why so many of you can remain employed in different fields.

In the wired WAN, for example, despite the years-long hoopla surrounding IP VPNs, frame relay and private lines continue to reign as the market leaders. There is, indeed, something for everyone.

That having been said, my take is that 802.11-based hot spots have the potential to serve as legitimate infrastructure for high-bandwidth coverage where expensive cellular infrastructure is too unwieldy, expensive and slow in populated locations. If users are going to remain stationary but away from their traditional workspaces for a chunk of time, why not use WLAN infrastructure with multi-megabit bandwidth? (3G, on its very best day, tops out at 2M bit/sec, shared – when it becomes available.)

And, according to one wireless consultant, WLAN infrastructure costs are just 13% the costs of cellular deployment costs.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt if Wi-Fi based equipment could be made carrier-class for such installations. This could jack the cost up a bit. And for product certification, we probably require something from the industry a bit more formal and robust than an industry marketing alliance.

The existing Wi-Fi Alliance, in case you weren’t aware, tests equipment for interoperability against the products it chooses for its own test bed. It does not test for compliance against 802.11a/b/g specifications (an assumption I mistakenly made a few years back).

Just because your products are “Wi-Fi certified,” for example, doesn’t mean they have been certified to support all components of the standard or to work with products not in the alliance’s test bed.

So far, this doesn’t seem to have been a problem, and the Wi-Fi Alliance has done a lot of good in terms of promoting and accelerating Wi-Fi networks in home and enterprise networks.

But if we’re talking about building part of the public wireless network infrastructure out of these products, we could really use a more robust watchdog organization. Something like a Wi-Fi counterpart to CableLabs, which tests products for cable TV equipment (such as cable modem) compliance to the DOCSIS standard specifications might be in order.