One big wireless net

What happens when you put two great wireless technologies together?

On the road map of wireless convergence, all paths lead to networking utopia, where users roam seamlessly among always-on, concentric wireless networks that offer plentiful bandwidth that's flexible enough to handle any requirement thrown at it.

Technology planners and sophisticated users foresee a time when the head of an agency visits a field office. Upon waking in her hotel room, she flips open her portable handset and sees she has three new e-mail messages, one marked "urgent." Another window on the display shows that her assistant is already at his desk, two time zones away. Later, as she drives to the field office, she checks her voice mail. Once within the radius of the campus' wireless network, her call is automatically switched to the local wireless access point. The handoff triggers a pop-up screen with a local phone directory for her workgroup in case she wants to go over any last-minute meeting details.

All those technical capabilities are available individually today, but their convergence lies somewhere beyond some vanishing point on the horizon. What's the best estimate for when they might be broadly available? A minimum of three to five years, analysts say.

The interim challenges are sizable. First, local-area wireless hot spots, wide-area third-generation (3G) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) cellular networks must be aligned. Then, people must prepare for the coming of WiMax broadband wireless networks, which span distances of up to 30 miles.

Meanwhile, devices and applications have to be reconfigured or created. That will require broad cooperation among service providers, infrastructure and handset makers, and application developers to break open what everyone seems to agree is the rich potential of wireless convergence.

Wireless goes to the edge

The convergence is already happening,

bit by bit. The Orange County Sheriff's

Department in Southern California has equipped patrol cars and investigators with secure mobile access. Officers within range of one of the county's 17 wireless hot spots get access to law enforcement databases and resources.

If they move out of the hot spot's range, the network automatically hands off the call to cellular carrier AT&T Wireless — now Cingular Wireless — which has carved out a private wireless network for the county using Enhanced Data GSM Environment (Edge) technology, which boosts data transmission to rates as high as 384 kilobits/sec. The department's network uses software from NetMotion Wireless to sense which network provides the faster connection and enable the handoff.

The arrangement wins high praise from Ed Lee, a project manager for the county, who likes the automation and the static IP addressing that allows the sheriff's department to authenticate individual users by name.

"Our users don't have to worry about managing their wireless connection," Lee said. "They can travel from one location to another without worrying about how they're going to connect, the status of the connection and everything in between."

Any complexities associated with the handoff between the wireless and Edge networks are completely transparent to users, he said.

And that's exactly the sort of transparency required for a converged wireless application to succeed, said Adam Zawel, an analyst at the Yankee Group. "It will be a challenge for any organization or their solution to work across multiple networks," he said, encouraging government entities to work through a single network operator or systems integrator. "Emergency services personnel don't want to have to think about how their security policies will work across 3G and public Wi-Fi hot spots."

In fact, the convergence of wireless and cellular is the richest near-term opportunity for equipment makers and service providers. Converged service revenues in the United States are projected to hit $1.6 billion by 2010, with 26 million subscribers in North America, according to Monica Paolini, a principal at Senza Fili Consulting.

Any integration with WiMax broadband networks is still a few years away at best. Market researcher Parks Associates predicts 7 million WiMax-only users by 2009, but the first generation of WiMax is intended for fixed applications, such as building-to-building links.

Although that doesn't mean WiMax won't be useful for people who want some kind of converged networking, it suggests that WiMax operators may be more focused on developing a market than creating links with wireless or cellular operators.

Devising devices

Wireless convergence is poised to deliver one clear, tangible benefit to end users: fewer devices to lug around. "No one wants to carry around more devices, but they

do want devices optimized for the application at hand," said Kathy Small, market manager for wireless and mobility at Cisco Systems.

Small cites market research that shows that more than 90 percent of laptop computers or tablet PCs will have some sort of embedded wireless local-area network radio. And from there, it's easy to add "softphone" software that essentially turns a PC into a voice terminal, complete with call forwarding, voice mail access and the directory that you'd find on business handsets.

"Softphones basically give you your corporate desktop wherever you may be — on the road, at a customer or vendor site, or anywhere on your own campus," she said.

Some carriers and enterprises are also flirting with voice-over-wireless phones, which provide in-house mobility and one less wired connection to move, add or change. Wireless phone makers such as Motorola and Siemens Communications are banking on dual-mode units that permit calls to and from both wireless and public cellular networks.

In Japan, NTT DoCoMo has already launched a wireless/cellular voice service; in the United States, Cingular is looking to introduce something similar next year. Other American carriers — Sprint, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless, for example — are expected to follow suit, analysts predict.

Converging applications

Neither the network nor convenience will drive users toward a particular device, said Mark Straton, senior vice president of marketing at Siemens. "Few users require an all-in-one device," he said. "It's really the application that will drive device selection."

At least for the time being, it's unclear if users really want to use their laptop computers for voice communications or browse the Web on a wireless phone's small screen. Plus, given the relative expense of personal digital assistants compared to wireless phones, many agencies are reluctant to spend the money for something users might easily drop or lose. "Devices will continue to be more application-specific," Straton said.

But convergent applications have come to mean more than just voice and data on the same network. Thanks to a built-in feature of most instant messaging programs, many users have become more accustomed to the idea of "presence," the status indicator that says whether buddies or workgroup colleagues are busy or even on the network at all.

Straton pointed to Siemens' OpenScape product, which has what he calls an aggregated presence application that contains lists of who's available, identifies which phone they're available on — wireless, desktop or home — and tells the network to call that phone.

He said such an application could prove especially useful for government users handling emergency situations. By clicking on a buddy list, it automatically contacts those people, regardless of network or type of device.

Clearly, every organization's path to a converged wireless solution will reflect its own requirements, existing infrastructure and need for mobile access beyond the daily workplace. For the next few years, wireless convergence may also test the pioneering spirit as the boundaries between different network, device and application types start to blur.

For government organizations and their employees, the promise of converged wireless technology will be marked by productivity gains, and the ability to respond more quickly and field personnel who have all the access they need at their fingertips.

Although carriers, hardware and infrastructure vendors, and application developers still have some issues to iron out, government users can set a course for wireless convergence with relative confidence — and a fair amount of patience.

Sweeney is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has covered information technology and networking for more than 20 years. He can be reached at terry@tsweeney.com.

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Rippling radio waves

Here is a view of some wireless convergence possibilities, near and far:

Campus scenario:

A large office building or set of buildings on a campus uses private branch exchanges (PBX) equipped with both wireless voice capability and voice over IP. Beyond the office area, the local cellular provider delivers the signal for the phones.

Projected availability: Now.

Metro scenario:

Wireless handset coverage roams from an office wireless access point to a campus wireless PBX to a public wireless hot spot or a local cellular network, depending on signal strength and application requirement. A presence-based application that resides on the handset alerts the user to the status of workgroup colleagues, family members and friends.

Projected availability: 18 to 24 months.

Wide-area scenario:

A voice-equipped personal digital assistant replaces desktop phones and enables users to answer voice calls, respond to e-mail messages and browse the Web while roaming through multiple cities' wireless, cellular and WiMax broadband networks, all with one bill, one voice mailbox and one device to carry around.

Projected availability: Five years.

Oregon county works a wireless wonder

How rural is Hermiston, Ore., which hugs the border with Washington state? "There are 12,000 people here, and the cows significantly outnumber the people," joked Casey Beard, director of emergency management for Morrow County, Ore.

Northern Oregon doesn't pop up on most people's radar as one of the nation's most dangerous or lethal bottlenecks. But Beard gets a lot more serious when describing the area's emergency response challenges and the use of wireless technology to support that mission.

The real kicker is the Umatilla Chemical Depot, just outside Hermiston, which stockpiles about 30 percent of the nation's decommissioned chemical weapons until the depot can destroy them.

"We also have the largest railroad facility west of Omaha, coupled with cargo traffic on the Columbia and Snake rivers and Interstate 82," said Beard, who's an active member of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP).

The region was largely passed over by the so-called bandwidth revolution that brought DSL, cheap T1 lines and Internet connections to other parts of the nation.

County-owned fiber connected some of the emergency response sites. Nextel Communications' wireless network also provided some coverage to the area, but it was too spotty around the edges to be CSEPP's exclusive wireless backbone.

Beard and his CSEPP counterparts came up with an innovative approach: A 1,000-square-mile wireless network, built with equipment from Proxim and the integration know-how of EZ Wireless of Hermiston, Ore.

Now the county uses wireless technology for data transmission and video feeds from digital cameras at strategic intersections and river ports across the area. Officials plan to add wireless voice over IP to cut down on the number of devices that crew members have to carry and operate. The Nextel cellular network serves as a backup in the event the wireless network is unavailable.

The main application is a geographical information system package called Solofield, made by LandMark Systems, which allows county officials to manipulate vast amounts of digital data and send it to a fixed place on the ground. The data could be used to forecast the weather or model how a chemical plume might spread.

Sensors in emergency crews' hazmat suits relay their locations, which are plotted on a digital grid that can be shared by numerous groups. The sensors also monitor outside temperatures to keep crew members from overheating inside their suits.

Such solutions aren't necessarily cheap. Beard estimates CSEPP spent about $2 million in three years, and annual maintenance runs about $120,000, including the project's single biggest expense: Internet access fees. But CSEPP benefits from some federal funding, as well as county money.

"We're pioneers in this," Beard said. What he calls the world's biggest wireless network has "significantly reduced our need for voice communications, and improved our ability to track and document information."

No one looks forward to having to put the system to the test because of an accident or terrorist attack, but it's reassuring to know that multiple lifesaving applications have already been thoroughly field-tested.

— Terry Sweeney

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