Do you see him? Is it Packetman, the wireless superhero introduced two
months ago in this space, who uses so-called ï¿½3G wireless technologyï¿½ to
connect us to the Internet no matter where we go?
Thatï¿½s unlikely, at least for now.
As it turns out, Packetmanï¿½s wallet is a little light these days since he
had to spend so much money licensing radio spectrum for 3G from governments
around the world. For example, in calendar year 2000 (according to Status
of IMT-2000 (UMTS) 3G mobile licensing in Western Europe from the ITU
Web site) license awards in Western Europe topped $95 billion, more than $45
billion of that in Germany alone. Despite movement toward renegotiating
spectrum licenses, wireless carrier debt is still extremely high -- even
before deployment of any significant 3G infrastructure. So for now, 3G
Packetman remains largely earthbound. Wireless carriers everywhere are
deferring, or even canceling, 3G deployments because of their already-high
debt burdens and the uncertain revenue and return models for new 3G
So if it isnï¿½t 3G Packetman providing wireless IP service in airports,
hotels, convention centers, and other places frequented by professionals on
the move, who is it? Itï¿½s a close relative. Those sites providing public,
wireless IP access are provided by ï¿½miniature Packetman,ï¿½ or ï¿½Mini-P,ï¿½ whose
reach in terms of distance is much smaller than that of 3G Packetman, but
who ultimately may be the wind beneath the big P-manï¿½s wings.
Whatï¿½s 802.11b Divided by 3G?
Public, wireless Internet access is a relatively new service phenomenon,
but the technology has been deployed in enterprises -- and even in homes --
since the 1990s. In fact, ï¿½Mini-Pï¿½ and so-called wireless ï¿½hotspotsï¿½ are no
more (and no less) than wireless LANs built on the IEEE 802.11 standards for
802.11 defines parameters for the physical (PHY) and medium access
control (MAC) layers of a wireless local-area network (WLAN), much as 802.3
defines PHY and MAC layers for wired Ethernet LANs. From the perspective of
a network administrator or a user, the differences are effectively confined
to the type of transport. Wireless LANs use radio frequencies to carry
information; wired LANs use electrical or optical signals on a wire. But
both are capable of running any protocol (including TCP/IP), network
operating system, or LAN application (including Internet telephony).
The original 802.11 standard, adopted in the mid 1990s, uses unregulated
frequencies in the 2.4 GHz band to provide 1 and 2 Mbps speeds. The standard
has quickly evolved to higher speeds and additional capabilities:
ï¿½ 802.11b, now widely deployed, uses 2.4 GHz and allows speeds up to
11 Mbps at distances up to 300 feet. 802.11b is often referred to as
ï¿½Wi-Fi,ï¿½ short for ï¿½Wireless Fidelity,ï¿½ an effort aimed at ensuring
interoperability of wireless LAN equipment.
ï¿½ 802.11a, adopted and beginning to be deployed, uses frequencies
in the 5 GHz range and allows speeds up to 54 Mbps.
ï¿½ 802.11e addresses quality of service (QoS) for multimedia
applications including voice over IP.
ï¿½ 802.11i addresses encryption.
802.11 networks are conceptually simple, made up of 802.11-enabled
devices that are physically close (typically within tens or hundreds of
feet) and able to communicate with one another to build informal local
networks, or with so-called ï¿½access pointsï¿½ that are connected to larger
networks. If an access point is connected to a company intranet or to the
Internet, it can serve as a gateway to these networks for 802.11 devices.
802.11 networks are also relatively simple to build since wireless
transport eliminates the need to run wires. A wireless LAN may comprise the
entire network of a small company, or may be used to extend enterprise
intranets to hard-to-wire areas such as manufacturing plants and warehouses.
The easy setup of wireless LANs has led to widespread and growing adoption
within the last two years, primarily in enterprises and in homes. IDC, in
Preliminary Worldwide Wireless LAN Equipment Market Forecast and Analysis,
2002ï¿½2006, reports that wireless LAN client and access point shipments
topped 3.7 million units in 2000 and 8 million units in 2001.
Not all deployments are for enterprise or home use, however. Beginning in
volume in 2001, numerous operators (typically small) began deploying 802.11
wireless LANs in areas frequented by computer users. These isolated wireless
LAN deployments, called ï¿½hotspots,ï¿½ are most often found in airports,
hotels, convention centers, coffee shops, and university campuses. The goal
is to gain either a revenue stream, customers for other services, or both.
ï¿½Hotspotï¿½ deployments are relatively inexpensive: No government spectrum
license is required and competition and high volume in the WLAN marketplace
lead to low equipment prices.
Can hotspots allow us to connect to the Internet at high speeds (almost)
anywhere we go? The challenge is not one of technology -- 802.11 is well
proven, including handoff between 802.11 access points -- but rather one of
critical mass and service availability. The typical business traveler will
be unwilling to configure a laptop or PDA for wireless connectivity, let
alone pay for a hotspot service, unless he or she is confident of being able
to connect in a wide variety of locations. Hotspot services will only be
successful if users can roam at will over a global hotspot network, or if
hotspots represent simply the highest bandwidth points of a larger 3G+
Here I Come to Save the Day!
So-called ï¿½aggregatorsï¿½ already tie together hotspots into larger
networks more suitable for service offerings. For example, Boingo Wireless
now provides access to more than 700 for-fee and for-free hotspots. Boingoï¿½s
Web site has sections for individuals to sign up, and for hot spot operators
to join the network. Presumably, Boingo handles all the billing details to
allow its clients to seamlessly use any of the enrolled hotspots. Another
interesting tidbit from the ï¿½About Usï¿½ section of the Web site: Boingo
counts Sprint PCS among its investors.
Why would a wireless carrier be interested in an aggregated 802.11
hotspot approach when 3G services are imminent? Perhaps because, unlike 3G
services, the cost of entry for 802.11 hotspots is low enough to allow
relatively risk free experimentation to find attractive service bundles.
Maybe it is a hedging strategy to guard against 802.11 success until 3G is
deployed. Or perhaps 802.11 hotspots will ultimately become a stepping-stone
to a combined 802.11 + 3G network service that offers users a combination of
very high wireless bandwidth for locations where they remain stationary
together with always available lower bandwidth. Such a service could be
offered as easily to businesses as to travelers.
Regardless of which reason is correct, and regardless of whether new
entrants such as Boingo or more established carriers are ultimately the most
successful offering 802.11 public access services, one thing seems clear:
the value proposition of high-bandwidth, easy-to-use Internet connections in
places we visit is often simply too compelling to ignore. Hotspot deployment
-- and hotspot aggregation -- will continue until a better solution arrives
and is deployed. Until then, an army of ï¿½Mini-Psï¿½ will help Packetman take
to the skies.
Jim Machi is director, Product Management for the Network Processing
Division of the Intel Communications Group. Intel, the worldï¿½s largest
chipmaker, is also a leading manufacturer of computer, networking, and
communications products. For more information, visit www.intel.com.
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