Flooding the airwaves

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

20 kilobits/sec.

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

network.

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

do so."

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

tools?

"I think people are still pretty skeptical about the whole idea of wireless

data," said Julie Feil, principal network architect at Emerging Technology

Solutions.

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.

About the Author

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

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