Flooding the airwaves
- By Brian Robinson
- Sep 11, 2000
Wireless technology may be the current rage, and the wireless Web its flashy
offspring, but underlying the craze is the need for fat data pipes. Just
as traditional voice, video and data services will need high-speed connections,
the wireless Internet depends on the development of its own broadband links.
By late next year, networks based on a wireless Internet Protocol standard
could be delivering up to 2.2 megabits/sec rates, which would be comparable
to the T-1 network connections many agencies use. But it's unlikely to happen
painlessly, as competing industry groups vie to make their particular technologies
the dominant ones. And once they arrive, there are still plenty of doubts
about just what they'll be used to deliver.
"There's a lot of hype over this and far too much optimism," said Jed
Kolko, an analyst at market-watcher Forrester Research Inc. "The systems
may be overkill."
Predictions of people walking the streets and accessing the World Wide
Web via cell phones or personal digital assistants (PDAs) are overblown,
Kolko said. The applications and information that people want delivered
to their handheld devices are text-based with simple graphics and are not
the equivalent of video-on-demand.
"People are not looking to replace their PCs with handhelds," Kolko
said. "They'll mainly be used as complements to that desk-based technology."
Wireless service between fixed points is much faster than mobile or
cellular communications and can rival the speeds of Digital Subscriber Line
or Integrated Services Digital Network connections. But even fixed wireless
is not expected to replace wire-based technologies.
"It is seen by some people as a potential replacement for copper lines,
but we see it more as a local extension of the fiber network," said Tom
Kuchler, director of strategic marketing of broadband wireless access for
Nortel Networks. "As those wireless pipes become smarter, where we can monitor
the packets going across them just as we can in the wired pipes, they'll
increasingly be used as a natural extension for the [wide-area network]."
In the mobile wireless world, existing digital networks — considered
second generation or 2G — assign one channel for each two-way conversation
on a cell phone and are capable of maximum data rates of just less than
But service providers are scrambling to introduce interim packet-switched
networks — so-called 2.5G service — that send bursts of data as needed,
rather than lock up a channel for the duration of an exchange. Burst data
means you can send a number of conversations over a channel, because the
bursts of different conversations are inter-laced together during transmission
"downtimes," so you use bandwidth more efficiently.
The next wave of wireless technology, 3G networks, will take the same
approach, but at much faster speeds.
Sprint PCS has said it intends to bring its 3G service to the United
States late in 2001, and other wireless providers are expected to try and
match that. Third-generation networks can deliver data rates of 144 kilobits/sec
to people in moving vehicles, 384 kilobits/ sec to pedestrians and more
than 2 megabits/sec to people in fixed locations such as offices.
However, that doesn't mean service providers will offer service across
all those areas because they only have a certain amount of spectrum available
to use. "Some [service providers] might prefer to focus their valuable infrastructure
and spectrum on their most mobile users, [which is] a rapidly growing revenue
source," warned Raymond Kammer, director of the National Institute of Standards
and Technology, at a recent congressional panel.
Fortunately, fixed wireless services look ready to step into the breach.
Unlike mobile wireless, fixed wireless is intended to service immovable
sites such as buildings or other cell sites.
"It solves the last mile issue, from the edge of the wired network to
where the ultimate user is," said Dan Shell, consulting system engineer
at Cisco Systems Inc.'s federal division. "It can handle low-end video and
some voice, as well as Web access. Whatever can be sent over a wired IP
network can be sent over wireless also, though the wireless pipes are obviously
much narrower. So wireless is generally a solution to fairly specific problems."
For example, he said, though it can't replace the functionality of a
fiber-based network, fixed wireless can be used as a backup for the core
Typical situations in which fixed wireless plays strongly are in rural
areas where communications companies are reluctant to supply wired networks,
or where nearby buildings need to be connected and it would be too costly
to string fiber between them. Nortel, for example, uses fixed wireless to
take its fiber networks into relatively inaccessible areas of cities.
"We can extend the reach of our networks by up to five times as much
as we could [for the same price] if we used fiber," said Luanne Kruse, Nortel's
senior manager of broadband wireless strategic marketing. "We can extend
our customer base to places in cities were it might other-wise be hard to
Assuming these new broadband wireless capabilities arrive in the market,
some government agencies would seem a natural fit to take advantage of them.
The Defense Department, for one, has been at the head of the pack in
providing its officers with wireless PDAs to help manage operations better,
and civilian agencies such as the U.S. Postal Service have used handheld
devices for tasks such as scanning barcodes and keeping track of mail.
But whether or when such applications will translate into a general
use of broadband wireless within the government is still open for debate.
The Justice Department for example, is a major user of commercial services
but currently has no requirement for broadband wireless, according to department
officials. For one thing, its availability is too far off to determine what
its use could be, and the department is too focused on getting basic wired
service into its various offices.
Because of budget problems that are still not fully ironed out, the
officials said, broadband wireless is certainly on no one's horizon yet.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is already a user of broadband
wireless technologies in its disaster relief efforts, mainly through satellite
and site-to-site laser links, "but we haven't seen a big requirement beyond
that," said Tim Ritter, chief of FEMA's disaster response branch.
But will these portable devices catch on as real enterprise computing
"I think people are still pretty skeptical about the whole idea of wireless
data," said Julie Feil, principal network architect at Emerging Technology
One common complaint is that portable systems cannot present much information
because they have such small screens, Feil said. The market also lacks focus,
with vendors designing a variety of different solutions to meet different
needs and working with different standards. "IT managers will have to be
really smart with what they want to do with all of this," she said.
—Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.
Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.