Wireless standard still a disconnect

Nearly six months have passed since vendors released a wave of wireless data products built to a new standard that promises interoperability among different vendors' products, but observers doubt whether this development will spur the industry toward a boom any time soon.

The new standard, adopted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, establishes guidelines for vendors such as Lucent Technologies, 3Com Corp., Harris Corp. and Bay Networks Inc. to develop networking products for sharing data over wireless networks. The standard—known in the industry as IEEE 802.11—has emerged piecemeal in the past couple of years, and it should create a marketplace in which customers will be able to mix and match wireless network hardware the way they now mix and match desktop equipment on a traditional wired network.

Manufacturers, systems integrators and customers do not doubt that the standard is a positive development, and it should allow customers to get better prices on wireless data products, rather than being locked into the pricing structure of one vendor.

But even with the acceptance of wireless data standards, the spread of the technology is expected to be limited because customers are more comfortable with traditional wired networks, and not all potential customers view the rise of wireless local-area networks as a development that could ultimately save money, time and hassles.

"Right now, wireless data is in the 'too-hard-to-do' column," said Charlie Cox, radio frequency manager for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Push for Wireless

Wireless LANs still can save agencies money, Cox said. The money comes in the form of time saved when mobile workers can use a wireless LAN to share information instantly with a traditional network rather than waiting to access a wired LAN. "If I can save you 30 minutes a day, that's money right there," Cox said.

Despite the absence of a stampede for wireless data products, vendors continue to focus on market areas relevant to federal agencies. Doug Makishima, director of marketing for Bay's wireless LAN group, said his company is concentrating its marketing energy on only a few industry sectors. But, he added, those sectors offer ample room for federal customers.

"We're focusing on the mainstream corporate enterprise, health care, education [and] government—military, state and local," Makishima said.

The Air Force Services Agency has bought Bay products. The agency manages food and lodging operations as well as golf courses and recreation centers for the Air Force. Kenneth Taylor, telecommunications specialist at agency headquarters in San Antonio, said the organization has installed a wireless network to allow workers to roam while doing their work. The network also offers a detour around the recabling hassles associated with changes in the agency's staff, he said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is using wireless networks and handheld computers to let health care providers track the distribution of controlled substances to patients in VA hospitals. Wireless networks allow hospitals to avoid the task of dropping the wires of a traditional network around patients and medical equipment. David Kaiser, computer assistant with the Clinical Informatics Team at the VA medical center in Biloxi, Miss., said the wireless LAN has proved "pretty useful" for most of the activities the hospital has attempted to run on the platform.

Kaiser said he expects the wireless network to serve as the basis for additional applications in the future. Nurses and doctors will be able to use the wireless LAN to access patient information that resides on a main wired LAN or a mainframe, he said. And the IEEE 802.11 standard would allow hospital workers in different functional areas to share information more easily, even if they were using wireless LAN products by two different vendors, Kaiser said.

Situations in which users from within the same organization choose wireless products that are not interoperable are not unusual. Observers said users in separate functional areas often demand different products to meet their specific needs, even at the expense of interoperability.

Tom Street, an electronics technician at the Naval Research Laboratory, said the new standard will make it easier for agencies to purchase the latest wireless technology without risking the chance of not being able to communicate with users in other parts of their operation. "The interoperability allows you to pick and choose," he said. "Somebody might come out with a product that has a lot more capabilities, that has interoperability, that we would like to use."

Wireless vendors contend that the standard will lead to a proliferation of new products and to greater functionality. "The industry really has a standard around which they can develop their wireless LAN strategies," said Mack Sullivan, director of the Wireless LAN Alliance, an industry group that seeks to promote use of wireless LANs.

Sullivan said companies can begin to develop different types of wireless products that work together over the same infrastructure. For example, one company may market cordless phones and handheld wireless data devices that work over the same wireless access points in a building.

"What we expect is that now that the standard is finalized, it will broaden the number of wireless applications," Sullivan said.

Now that the standard is final, industry is developing and marketing products more aggressively, according to Angela Champness, director of product and business development for Lucent. But Champness admitted that customers still are not taking advantage of the interoperability that IEEE 802.11 offers.

"No, I don't think there is a good deal of mixing and matching," she said.

Uphill Battle

The IEEE 802.11 standard and the interoperability it promises still face a battle of acceptance—more because of issues associated with wireless technology in general than because of problems with the new standard.

Wireless LANs still are seen as augmentors of—not replacements for—hard-wired LANs, said Eddie Hold, research analyst at Current Analysis Inc., a Sterling, Va.-based market research firm. And despite the promise that customers will be able to pick and choose their wireless products, Hold said IEEE 802.11 could lead to fewer stand-alone wireless vendors because it will make the wireless market more attractive to traditional networking companies.

"I think you're going to see acquisitions of small wireless vendors," Hold said, noting that Bay has obtained its wireless presence through an acquisition of Netwave Technologies Inc.

But perhaps the biggest roadblock to greater acceptance of wireless data products is the level of know-how among federal customers. The EPA's Cox cautioned that standardization—for all its potential benefits—will not amount to much within the federal government if the industry does not seek to educate the people who would develop and use wireless LANs.

"Standardization will make it easier, plus it will make it easier to market the stuff," he said. "But they need to market it to the guy who makes the decisions."

Cox added that federal managers often fail to provide details on the benefits of wireless networks in budget documents. "We don't justify it in the budget well," he said.

Even if an agency does make a leap to wireless data and begins to mix and match interoperable products in an effort to get good prices, the agency may face drawbacks, Hold said. In mixing and matching products, the agency will not be able to take advantage of all the features that the products in its wireless LAN offer, he said. Instead, the customer will get only the functionality of the "least common denominator" in the wireless LAN configuration it creates.

In addition, despite the praise of the new standard, the wired LAN remains king. "There hasn't really been the great demand for wireless networks," Hold said. "Most people already have the cabling, so why bother?"

Even agencies that are to using wireless are not treading too far into the realm of wireless interoperability. Quy Dao, communications manager for Electronic Data Systems Corp., the systems integrator that is providing the VA with wireless products for managing its controlled substances, said the VA will use only one vendor's products—Lucent's WaveLAN—to support the whole hospital.

But Dao did not rule out the possibility that the VA may want to migrate to new wireless products. "A year from now, one vendor may not be the best solution," he said.

Industry officials said they recognize the roadblocks facing quick adoption of wireless data products but added that they expect to reap the benefits of interoperability in the long run.

"Customers don't actually need interoperability today, but they need to know that it's possible in the future," Lucent's Champness said.

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