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Wireless Networking Set To Transform Workplaces, Homes In Knowledge Era

Madanmohan Rao reports from the Wireless World Summit in Singapore

Along with the boom in mobile telephony around the world, a parallel wave of innovation in wireless corporate networking promises to usher in a new world of "untethered knowledge workers" and "flexible network organizations."

Delegates from around the world gathered in Singapore recently for the Wireless World 2002 summit, hosted by media and event group IDG (www.idg.net). Issues addressed ranged from protocol standardization and adaptive business strategy to security enhancement and market dynamics.

"Wireless networking can bring about increasing configuration flexibility, lower installation and maintenance costs, and improved workforce productivity. Wireless technology allows the network to extend to where mere wires cannot go," said Louis Leong, regional manager for Avaya Asia Pacific.

Wireless local area networks (WLANs) for "plug and connect" applications are rapidly emerging in the office, in homes, hotels, warehouses, hospitals, stock exchanges, and public "hot spots" like airport lounges, libraries, conference venues, and cybercafes.

"Business travelers, managers at multiple sites, students on campuses, salesforces on large shopfloors, and even families using multiple online devices at home are the target market for this burgeoning industry in business, home and public networks," said Leong.

Typical uses include "hot desking" for employees to work from any office location, inventory management via wireless handhelds in large warehouses, entry of patient record information right from hospital bedside devices, visitor management and authentication in government offices, exhibitor connectivity at trade shows, and setting up of standby offices and emergency relief centres during natural disasters.

63 per cent of WLAN users report that the technology improves the accuracy of their everyday tasks, and 87 per cent of users believe that it improves their quality of life, according to research cited by Terence Fleming, Asia Pacific director for wireless security services firm Bluesocket, but challenges arise in authentication, authorization and administration of such services.

By 2005 the worldwide WLAN equipment market is expected to approach US$4.6 billion, according to research firm Cahners In-Stat; this includes network interface cards, inter-building bridges, and industrial embedded applications for indoor and outdoor usage.

Gartner research projects that by 2005, 50 per cent of Fortune 1000 companies will have extensively deployed WLAN technology based on standards like IEEE 802.11. Laptops and handheld devices account for an increasingly growing proportion of computing units owned by U.S. organisations.

The current leader in the WLAN marketplace in the Asia-Pacific region is Japan (with a whopping 60.5 per cent market share, according to Frost & Sullivan), followed by Korea, Hong Kong, China, Australia and Singapore (together accounting for 33.0 per cent of the market).

In terms of mobile phone penetration, there will be about 300 million users in the Asia-Pacific (excluding Japan) by the end of 2002, approaching 500 million in 2005. The number of Internet subscribers in 2005 will be about 40 million in China, 30 million in Korea and 20 million in India, according to Sandra Ng, vice president of communications research at IDC.

The fastest-growing WLAN verticals in the region are government and education, followed by healthcare, retail, banking, and manufacturing, said Ng.

The major vendors and systems integrators in the region include Agere, Enterasys, Linksys, D-Link, BlueSocket, Avaya, Aptilo, Agilent, Siemens, Compaq, RadioLAN, BreezeCOM, Proxim, Symbol, Melco, TDK, Cisco and 3Com.

A number of startups in this space have also sprung up in Singapore, such as ANTlabs, Tridor, RFnet Technologies, and Active Fusion. The WLAN market for Singapore is expected to increase from Sing$10 million in 2002 to Sing$20 million in 2004.

Major drivers for the WLAN market include the growing use of the Internet as the core platform for corporate communications and information storage, an increased reliance on email, growth of flexible working practices, increase in e-commerce services, and falling productivity levels due to increased 'gray time' spent traveling between locations, said Brian See, business development manager at Agere Systems.

Significant obstacles in this Brave New Wireless World include ensuring interoperability and migration between a bewildering array of standards, products and bandwidths, guaranteeing seamless roaming across multiple organisational sub-nets, and providing "future-proof" security (such as through IPSec-based VPNs).

Test equipment that can cut development time by reducing the amount of time required to identify problems and their cause is available today, said V. Ganesan, market development manager at Agilent Technologies.

2.4 Ghz WLAN technology is emerging, and 5 Ghz technologies are emerging (ideally suited for broadband information and entertainment appliances). The landscape includes Bluetooth, HomeRF, HiperLAN, and IEEE 802.11b (also known as Wi-Fi or wireless fidelity).

Intel and Microsoft have announced that their future wireless offerings will be based on Wi-Fi. More than 100 Asia-Pacific wireless developers have joined the Intel Personal Internet Client Architecture (PCA) Developers Network.

Bluetooth operates in the globally available unlicensed ISM (industrial, scientific and medical) radio frequency band of 2.4 Ghz, and is expected to be a significant player in the domain of personal area networks (PANs), though some analysts feel it is being overhyped and needs to go beyond the 'drool factor' stage.

In a competitive move, players from the Ethernet world have gathered under the WECA alliance (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance), which offers Wi-Fi certification for vendor products.

Other collaborative organizations that have sprung up include the Wireless LAN Association (www.wlana.org) and the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) for standards development.

"Such standardization is key for making the wireless part of a network transparent to the rest of the network," said Jean-Francois Delapau, strategic marketing director at Alcatel Mobile Networks.

The requirement for seamless roaming has already led to the creation of consortia for international ISP interconnection (including WISPr or Wi-Fi ISP roaming), and GPRS Roaming Exchange (GRX hub).

Singapore's ISP StarHub has already launched mobile access services based on GPRS (with speeds of upto 115 Kbps). "We are supporting SMS, MMS (multimedia messaging service) and Java content, but the installed base of GPRS phones has yet to grow," said Sudhir Menon, senior manager of mobile Internet services at StarHub.

GPRS helps users get access to business-critical information anytime and anywhere (such as email and calendaring), use m-commerce services, and leverage other services on Web and WAP platforms, Menon said.

WAP over GPRS in fact overcomes some of the earlier problems facing WAP adoption, such as slow data speed, time-based charging, and lack of smooth connectivity. GPRS will be the preferred platform for MMS as well, for services like photomail and video advertising. Business data solutions based on GPRS include SMS alerts for email, tasks and appointments from the desktop, as well as wireless access to office applications.

Data users will soon have more than one SIM card for personal use across multiple devices, Menon predicted. GPRS PC cards will be available this quarter, and integrated WLAN/GPRS products will become available in the next two quarters.

"The challenge is to generate new revenues, keep costs down, manage the increasingly complex value chain, and juggle the priorities of the many related partners," he cautioned.

The value chain includes data networks (GSM, GPRS, UMTS), telecom/datacom infrastructure (SMSC, MMSC, WAP), security, horizontal applications (email, synchronization), vertical applications (fleet management, banking, sales support, trading), content aggregators, client operating systems (WAP, PalmOS, Java), and end-user devices.

Multiple networking infrastructures, access devices and user applications will co-exist, and wireless technologies and services will complement 2G/3G networks, said Jan Sjonell, vice-president at Swedish startup Aptilo Networks.

Bluetooth will be ideal for small offices and homes, WLAN for big buildings and public areas, 3G for cities and suburbs, and 2G outside these areas. This calls for seamless network integration via a mixed installation of access points and clients, said Sjonell.

This will create a strong demand for multi-band multi-mode terminals by business users as well as service operators, said Yunxin Li, principal research engineer at the Motorola Australian Research Centre.

Devices emerging in such a scenario would be of three kinds: Web devices, Web-lite devices (such as WAP and iMode), and unlike-Web devices (such as J2ME, SMS), said Gunther Birznieks, CTO of wireless services firm eXtropia.

"The Web is still fairly ubiquitous and should not be ignored. Typically, the Web is the base of all content delivery on the Internet and will be the launching pad for much wireless data services as well," he said.

Structure and design of content for multiple devices will become a key issue, and numerous middleware solutions are emerging via SOAP, XML, SunONE, and Microsoft .Net, Birznieks concluded.

The writer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com


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