Breaking the tether

The wireless local-area network has been on the government watch list for several years, but a confluence of falling prices, higher data rates and easy installation could make 2002 the year the wireless LAN finally breaks out as a major communications technology.

The sales pitch for the technology has always been compelling. Avoid the expense and effort of wiring offices. Allow users to roam throughout a building, or among buildings, while staying connected to the network. Or extend a traditional wired network by adding a wireless access point.

Certainly in the broader market, wireless LANs already seem to have pushed through the acceptance barrier. The real growth in the government market is expected to begin later this year. That's when products in sufficient volume will appear that support the latest version of the main wireless LAN standard, which boosts data rates and shores up the wireless network's security, a big concern for government users.

"I think the wireless LAN has finally come into being as a standard," said Jim Howland, signal processing center manager for Mitre Corp. "There is now a wide spectrum of users, from the homeowner upward. It's only now a modest cost for a computer network card, and [wireless LAN] network access points are inexpensive."

That's leading buyers to use wireless LANs where one may not have made sense before. Businesses have increasingly considered renting spaces where there is no wired network in place, Howland said, because they've investigated the cost of a wired LAN against what it would take to put up a wireless LAN, including ramp-up times, and found the figures encouraging.

For much the same reason, Chris Johnson, senior systems engineer with Cisco Systems Inc.'s federal division, thinks there is a "huge opportunity" for wireless LANs in the government for mobile communications in the military, in emergency response situations and so on.

The sticking point for some people, though, is the confusion caused by the proliferation of IEEE 802.11-based wireless LAN standards.

802.11b standard is the oldest but 802.11a, which provides for network data rates more than four times higher than 802.11b, was recently ratified. Some wireless LAN products using 802.11a are already available, though the standard will likely not be tied down until closer to the end of the year.

Other specifications are also being developed, though Johnson believes that most customers will still opt for 802.11b wireless LAN technology, which is the most proven, at least for a while.

Conservative Approach

That's not the decision made by Martin Mullican, chief of command, control, communications and computers operations and security for the U.S. Transportation Command. Even though wireless LANs are deployed in USTranscom in unclassified spaces only, the command still goes to extraordinary lengths to protect its security. Because 802.11b's security is questionable, Mullican chose to wait for the better-protected 802.11a version.

Mullican views wireless LANs as extensions to wired LANs rather than replacements, used to extend a campus network into areas such as conference rooms that for one reason or another can't be fitted with a wired LAN.

"Actually, military bases are one of the best places to install wireless LANs," he said. "Many of them have older buildings that use lead paint and asbestos, and ripping out walls to put wired LANs in would be cost-prohibitive. In that case, 802.11 products are a tremendous cost-of-ownership helper."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at [email protected]


The 411 on 802.11

* 802.11b: The oldest wireless local-area network (LAN) standard. Also known as "Wi-Fi." Operates in the 2.4 GHz radio frequency band, and provides data rates of up to 11 megabits/sec. * 802.11a: Recently ratified. Operates at radio frequencies from 5 GHz to 6 GHz. Can approach data rates of 54 megabits/sec, though rates of 24 megabits/sec or less are more common. Not compatible with 802.11b, though the two can coexist on a network.

* 802.11g: Adopted as a draft standard in fall 2001. Also offers data rates up to 54 megabits/ sec, but operating in the 2.4 GHz range, it is compatible with the earlier 802.11b equipment. Theoretically, it should also have a wider range than 802.11a.

* 802.11e: Still only an early draft specification. Could prove to be the most important wireless LAN standard, being compatible with both 802.11a and b and featuring quality-of-service features and support for multimedia.


Introduction: "Emerging technologies"

Search technology: "The search continues"

VoiceXML: "A voice from the near future"

Handheld computers: "Handhelds in a new world order"

Grid computing: "Girding for the grid"

Visualization: "Data analysis: Picture this"

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.


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