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Wi-Fi, WLAN, 802.11b: Call It What You Want, but It's Here to Stay
Wi-Fi, WLAN, 802.11b: Call It What You Want, but It's Here to Stay

While 3G crawls forward without any sign of speeding up its deployment in Europe, companies such as NTT and British Telecom are quietly escalating their Wireless LAN plans. Although 802.11b, or Wi-Fi as it's commonly known, has been around for awhile, it has always seemed to be the poor cousin to other technologies such as Bluetooth.

Fact is, it's a stable, open standard and it's coming at us at 100 miles an hour. Could this be why it never attained the same high profile as Bluetooth? There was no one to profit from backing it because it was an open standard. That aside, companies and individuals are using it more and more. The same can't be said for the likes of GPRS and EDGE.

Wi-Fi has evolved into a serious networking contender, and nontraditional network players are trying to muscle in on the action. Domestic networked appliance manufacturers have been waiting for such a standard for awhile now. Instead of your fridge hooking up to the Internet to do your food shopping for you, it can talk to everything else to find out what its other white goods buddies need!

No reason why it can't also update each month's expenditure to your favorite budget planning application on your home PC; from that, to attempting to build citywide public networks. At home, Wi-Fi is your wire-free link to the Internet by way of a WLAN card, and you don't need a license to use it. Home kits are very cheap to buy nowadays. For under $150 you can be walking around the house surfing the Net.

Out and about it's effectively a wireless modem for your laptop. A host of micro-carriers are actively building 802.11b networks in public spaces such as hotels, airports, conference centers, and retail outlets. Starbucks is again riding the crest of the new wireless wave and has deployed Wi-Fi connectivity in some of their outlets. Who would have thought coffee could be so much more?

Micro-carriers typically strike a deal with a landlord to deploy wireless access points in the building, and pay the landlord monthly fees or deals on revenue share. An 802.11b access point has a typical range of 500­1,000 feet. Short range yes, but these new public networks are lightning fast ­ 11Mbps, which is more than four times faster than the top speeds promised by 3G networks (that's bearer speed, not consumer speed!) And again, Wi-Fi public networks need no license and are cheap to set up and operate, so they will be far less expensive than 3G for the end user.

The only downside to what sounds like an ideal standard is that it's too easy to hack into. This security issue will be around until some heavy investment is made in the space. Configuring the software provided by Wi-Fi hardware companies is clumsy too. It requires users to learn about settings such as SSID and WEP. Users are expected by micro-carriers to manually configure their 802.11b cards (without much support from these companies) to gain access. So, for the more tech savvy it shouldn't be too bad, but for the average computer user it will be an unwanted trip into unfamiliar territory.

Another potential annoyance is roaming problems from micro-carrier to micro-carrier. Here's what I mean. If you're sitting in the British Airways Exec Club lounge at Heathrow and you head out to the boarding gate with your handheld or laptop still running, chances are you'll be crossing into another micro-carrier's air space.

You're on their rate now! This means you need to "sign up" again, and you lose connection in the meantime. No single micro-carrier can hope to build a large enough footprint to service customers wherever they go. This has been an issue, but one that has been turned into a business opportunity by a handful of companies.

Wi-Fi is here to stay. As for 3G, Wi-Fi isn't a competing threat, but it will demystify to a degree just what 3G is going to deliver. It would be good to see the two working together to form an unwired coalition to serve all devices out there...and hence all your needs. Time will tell.

About Tom Dibble
Tom Dibble , a wireless entrepreneur, is a cofounder of
Global Wireless Forum, a forum dedicated to dealing with commercial, strategic,
and
technical issues on the evaluation of the wireless age in Europe and
the U.S.

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