Wireless in the wings

The next generation of wireless technology is waiting in the wings. Handheldcomputer manufacturers are waiting to take it on. Waiting just seems tocome with the territory.

Wireless — from cellular phones to Web-enabled handheld devices — isundoubtedly one of the hottest issues in information technology, and thathas many chief information officers in the hot seat. IT-savvy power usersare begging for wireless capabilities to access e-mail and agency data,but the market has developed so quickly that few CIOs have had time to developa game plan for deploying the technology.

Five years ago, cellular phones had lousy reception, long-distance rateswere expensive, and calls were frequently dropped or interrupted. Now, somecellular users are canceling their personal long-distance plans becausethe cellular plans are less expensive and just as reliable. Ken Hyers, senioranalyst in the mobile commerce practice at Cahners In-stat Group, a high-techmarket research firm, agreed that the mobile Internet market is still inthe formative stages.

"There are not a whole lot of wireless Internet services available now,"he said. "A lot are oriented toward simple information like stocks and sportsscores. Some are a little more advanced [and] most are free to use, butthey're rather primitive."

The key ingredients to making the wireless Internet work are transmissionspeed, coverage, compatibility with mobile devices, security and applicationintegration.

Speed and Coverage

Hyers said most wireless application data rates are 14.4 kilobits/sec;rarely, if ever, do they exceed 19.6 kilobits/sec. Some compression techniquescan be applied for the appearance of a 56 kilobits/sec connection, butit's still transmitting via a 14.4 kilobits/sec network.

From now through 2003, interim networks are being built to offer whatis called second-generation, or 2G, and 2.5G capabilities and speeds. Butnot until 2004 and 2005 will the superfast 3G networks and accompanyingapplication breakthroughs be ready to kick in, Hyers said. The 3G wirelesstechnology promises speeds of 144 kilobits/sec for people in moving vehiclesand up to 2 megabits/sec for those in fixed locations such as offices.

In the United States, the most popular wireless transmission standardsfor moving forward into a 3G world are Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA)2000 and Wideband CDMA (WCDMA). The choice of a standard will depend onthe wireless carriers' existing technology. If they use Time-Division MultipleAccess or the Global Systems for Mobile Communications standard — the twomain standards outside the United States — then upgrading to WCDMA is thechoice. But if the carrier uses CDMA, which is the most popular U.S. standard,then the move will be to CDMA 2000.

AT&T Wireless and VoiceStream Wireless Corp. will upgrade to theWCDMA standard, while Sprint and Verizon Communications have chosen CDMA2000. Carriers on the same standard can use one another's networks, butthe two standards are not compatible, Hyers said. Ultimately, the end userwill get pretty good coverage with either standard, especially in majormetropolitan areas, and access to equivalent capabilities.

As far as coverageis concerned, there are always going to be spotty areas in this country."Unlike Europe, the U.S. is a more spread-out society, and it's not as cost-effectiveto cover rural areas like the forests of Maine and lots of areas out Westwith low population densities," Hyers said.

In January, WorldCom Inc. announced expanded coverage for its wirelessInternet network, which will include more than 30 cities by the end of theyear. It offers an average throughput of 128 kilobits/sec, said MichaelBarnes, director of wireless product marketing at WorldCom.

Integrating everyday desktop applications with wireless handhelds andphones remains the trickiest part of this equation. Even in the 3G world,there will be constraints, Hyers said. A wireless phone has a small displayand only 12 to 15 keys for text input, which is not enough to easily typemessages. "That entry issue is not going to go away, even with 3G," he said.

The higher speeds will enable users to read more data more quickly ona laptop-like device with a 3G wireless modem, but devices with large displaysand easier text entry will be the best choices for accessing mission- criticaldata via wireless networks.

Early Adopters

Not everyone, though, is waiting around for the new technology.

Take the Governor's Office for Technology in Kentucky, which recentlyadded wireless messaging to the executive branch's e-mail capabilities.

Wireless messaging is intended to help agencies' executive staffs andIT personnel stay connected to their desktop messaging services, includinge-mail, contact information and calendars, said Doug Robinson, executivedirector of GOT's office of policy and customer relations.

Robinson expects about 500 users, mostly people who are consistentlyon-call, to sign up for the service.

GOT officials tried a number of wireless messaging options before choosingtwo BlackBerry devices from Research In Motion Ltd. The RIM products hadwhat they wanted: integration into the enterprise messaging infrastructure,single mailbox integration using existing e-mail addresses, a wearable two-waywireless handheld device and end-to-end security.

Kentucky went wireless to help agencies save money by reducing mobileairtime, as well as numeric paging and remote dial-in costs, Robinson said.The wireless system runs on a BellSouth/Mobitex network. Mobitex is a mobiledata network from Ericsson that is based on digital cellular technology,with coverage provided by overlapping radio cells.

GOT officials know there are problems with the technology, includingspotty coverage and frequent service pack upgrades, but they're willingto experiment.

"The killer on this is always support and help-desk issues," Robinsonsaid. "These are not trivial [issues], and what we're trying to do is followa recipe with critical ingredients that all fit and work together and areseamless to the customer using it. We must meet expectations but be clearwith limitations."

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