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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
It's been over two years since my first adventures in wireless networking and in that time, predictably, WiFi technology has improved and come down in price. WiFi service has also increased in availability, with coffee shops, motels, and even the UNT campus offering wireless access to their clientele. Still, even with these improvements, wireless networking has limited utility due to limitations in bandwidth and less than ubiquitous availability. It could be just a matter of time before wireless technology approaches the standards of the wired network, but the question is will it be soon enough?
There seems to be a technology race these days between cell phones and other wireless enabled devices such as notebook computers and PDAs. Notebooks and PDAs have more sophisticated applications and more readable screens, but cell phones have the distinct advantage of being much more portable and useful from pretty much anywhere but the more remote areas of the U.S. (I know that I'm always surprised when I think I'm in the middle of nowhere, but my cell phone still can find its network).
Cell phones also have an advantage of general utility. Arguing that the iPod and similar devices will eventually converge to cell phones, DrunkenBlog makes the point that, "the word here is serviceable. If it's 'good enough', and you're going to need your phone with you anyways, you at first carry around the extra gadgets and then eventually make what's on the phone work and save some pockets."
My phone is now my pager and my default digital camera. As a pager, it has all the functionality of the other little box that used to hang from my belt. As a camera, it is serviceable and good enough for vacation pictures and other oddities that I just have to document. My phone is also an Internet browser of sorts, but my choices of information are limited to the sources my service provider has decided to make available (very limited serviceability, but at least I can get sports scores). My phone has a calendar, and if the address book supported more contact information, I might not need a PDA, although mine is handy for taking notes at meetings and maintaining a to-do list.
I imagine that my next phone will have more characteristics of a PDA (some phones already do). My ideal phone would have Bluetooth (if the security improves) to sync with my Macintosh OS X system, and the ability to support a portable Bluetooth keyboard for taking notes. Using a headset (Bluetooth again) would take away any problems with it being too bulky to comfortably handle as a handset, but I still would want something that wouldn't weigh me down too much. All that plus some reasonably fast Internet service via my cell phone provider would pretty much relegate my WiFi use to eliminating one more cable to the computer on my desk. That's not much of a future for WiFi.
Meeting the Challenge
A recent article series by Forbes.com explores some of the challenges facing the wireless technology market. In parts one and two of an article series entitled "Pushing WiFi's Limits," Forbes laid out the two primary issues regarding wireless technology: speed and range.
When I started using WiFi two years ago, the supported standard was IEEE 802.11b which provides a bandwidth of about 11 megabits per second, roughly the speed of a wired 10-base-T connection (i.e. 1990's wired network technology speed). Since that time, the IEEE 802.11g standard has been adopted and is supported by most of the new wireless gadgets on the market. 802.11g runs about 5 times faster than its predecessor, but costs less. The cheapest 802.11b base station I could find two years ago was about $80. The median price for an 802.11g base station today is about $80. Similar price comparisons can be made for wireless adapter cards as well.
A 5-times increase in speed for less money is impressive, but that's still only the speed of your average dialup modem (which is not yet defined as "broadband", in other words, not as fast as Cable Modem or DSL). Most web surfing works fine, but anything that's rich in media (i.e. sound, lots of graphics, or video), will be less than high quality at WiFi speeds. Even audio streaming may tax a WiFi connection. I am bound to the wired network for my Apple PowerBook computer because network backups take too long at the paltry 802.11b speed we can support here.
The Forbes article describes a couple of new competing standards,
including the yet to be adopted
standard which will reportedly run at speeds greater than 100 megabits
per second. This approaches broadband speeds and would make wireless
equal to many wired networks and increase its utility for accessing
Internet-based information and media.
Getting in Range
Even if the bandwidth issue is solved, the range issue remains an impediment to WiFi utility. Wireless in your house is great, unless it only works well in one room. Likewise, wireless access on campus is great unless it doesn't happen to be available in your classroom or office. The answer so far has been to deploy as many wireless base stations as it takes to get the needed coverage. Apple has even turned this concept into a consumer product called Airport Express. It acts as a standalone base station or as a bridge to your Airport (Apple brand) WiFi network as well as a wireless USB print server, and you can plug your stereo into it to play your iTunes music through the big speakers.
So you can improve the wireless access in your house, but what if you want wireless access from anywhere in your town? Well the answer it to move to Grand Haven, Michigan, of course. Grand Haven has laid claim to being the first fully WiFi city in the U.S. Grand Haven provides wireless access to the door of every building, although coverage "is limited within the Grand Haven cemetery and nearby densely wooded area." To use the service you have to sign up with Ottawa Wireless, the company which provides the wireless and Internet service. Still, the $20-$25 per month cost makes this an attractive option (certainly more so than my $50 per month DSL service).
Such use of wireless technology almost can't be done without the coordination of a municipality, since it requires use of right-of-ways and mounting points such as public buildings and power poles. It may only be possible to do in a small town like Grand Haven, and then only if a large enough number of residents participate by signing up for service. Whereas the cell phone companies have put a lot of money into infrastructure by putting their transceivers on towers throughout the U.S., I doubt the same will happen for WiFi. WiFi base stations in most cases have to directly connect to a wired network and don't have the range of a cell tower. However, a company called Belair Networks has a solution which creates a "mesh" of wireless base stations that can talk to each other and pass network traffic along until it can get onto the wired network. In other words, we have the technology, but just not the marketplace yet to support a wide-scale deployment.
In spite of competition from other forms of wireless access, WiFi could find a niche for itself as a replacement for wired networks. With sufficient bandwidth on the horizon, WiFi is a great choice for new installations in old buildings, where running new wires through old walls is an expensive task. The Dell'Oro Group seems to agree. They've authored a report. which predicts a 20% growth in WiFi product sales for 2004, with particularly large growth in enterprise installations.
I see WiFi as comparable to other wireless solutions in their own markets. Digital satellites have made major inroads into the cable TV markets. Cell phones have started to replace land lines as people's default service. I think a number of factors have influence these trends. First, a wireless network is less expensive to maintain than a wired network. Second, wireless companies have had to work harder to break into their respective markets and have provided the equipment at a loss in order to get your commitment for the service (did you pay for your cell phone?). Their customer service has generally been better too. I'd rather deal with almost anyone but my local cable TV company.
A power company could be your next WiFi provider. We don't have power poles in my neighborhood, but maybe one day a company will contract with the city to put WiFi base stations on the street lights. 100 megabits per second or better would satisfy my home internet requirements, especially if it's at a lower cost. It certainly wouldn't hurt to have some additional competition for the DSL and cable modem providers.