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Planning for Tiers of Coverage
Planning for Tiers of Coverage

An important trend in the wireless sector that has for the most part gone unnoticed has been the emergence of a new class of mobile devices that can support multiple wireless air interfaces.

Dozens of handheld, smart phone, tablet, subnotebook (including ultrathin), and notebook systems are shipping with built-in wireless radio modems. These built-in radio modems typically support one of the primary interfaces, which include Bluetooth, IEEE 802.11b, GPRS, and CDMA2000 1x. Devices with dual-wireless interface support are also appearing on the market, but most often as higher-end models in a particular mobile device product line.

This new trend is paving the way for tiers of wireless coverage that will help to ensure that live data and/or voice is always available to mobile end users.

All commercial wireless air interfaces map to one of the wireless network categories, which are: Wireless Wide-Area Networks (or WANs), Wireless Local Area Networks (or WLANs), and Personal Area Networks (or PANs). These categories are differentiated by key wireless attributes including: average range of coverage or service area; the rate of data transmission; frequency assignment and management; and support for voice (in addition to data).

As the wireless sector has matured, worldwide technology leaders have also emerged in each category to now include GPRS, IEEE 802.11b, and Bluetooth. That said, the world of wireless is quickly evolving, with technologies such as CDMA2000 EV-DO, UMTS, and IEEE 802.11a starting to move up the deployment curve.

Integrated Wireless Interfaces
As Table 1 shows, mobile devices of all types are shipping with one, and, in the case of higher-end models, two or more integrated wireless air interfaces. Examples of the higher-end systems that support dual interfaces include the Hewlett Packard iPAQ Pocket PC h5550, the Symbian-based Sony Ericcson P800, and the Apple PowerBook G4. All three devices have integrated Bluetooth along with either Wi-Fi 802.11 or GPRS interfaces (typically one interface will constitute a radio modem with several components, including a digital signal processor or DSP and several RF filters). WANDA, a Pocket PC device from Texas Instruments (see Figure 1) is in a special class of mobile devices as it supports Bluetooth, IEEE 802.11b, and GPRS.

Table 1

Figure 1

For mobile devices that include only a single integrated wireless interface, an additional wireless network type (cellular data for example) can be realized with a SD/IO, MMC, CF, or PCMCIA third-party expansion card­slot option. Thus, tiers of coverage can be realized by selecting a mobile device that includes at least one integrated wireless air interface with an additional third-party wireless interface, or by selecting a dual-interface model (if available).

Improved OS Level Support
Although hardware availability for wireless interfaces is critical, it is not the only factor in the coverage equation. New or enhanced support at the operating system level is also a key contributing factor toward the realization of mobile devices that can realize multitiered service coverage areas. With the latest round of OS releases including Palm OS version 5, Pocket PC 2003 (which is a variation of Windows CE .NET version 4.2), Symbian version 7 (with Wideband CDMA support), and Windows XP, new features have been either introduced or improved in each system to provide enhanced support for the unique connection attributes of a given air interface. This has particularly been the case for the Bluetooth, 802.11b, and GPRS wireless interface. Improvements at the operating system level have spanned several areas and have included the following:

  • Improved device ­ driver support and configuration capability (e.g., Window XP and Pocket PC 2003 zero-configuration for Bluetooth wireless devices).
  • Enhanced connection management: Application Programming Interfaces (or APIs) available to OS-level (including built-in applets) and third-party applications.
  • Additional user interface controls and dialogs added to the mobile or desktop operating system¹s built-in connection manager to support the attributes of a particular air wireless interface (e.g., Bluetooth).

    IP Is the Common Denominator
    Another key factor, particularly to application developers, is the nearly ubiquitous support for Internet Protocol (IP) among all major wireless interfaces including the Personal Area Network arena currently dominated by Bluetooth. A primary function of the IP protocol is to provide network addressing for all nodes on a given network segment. Other functions of IP include datagram movement as well as fragmentation and reassembly of packets. As shown in Table 2, IP support is available among all wireless air interfaces including CDMA2000, GPRS, UMTS (which will bring true 3G wireless service), IEEE 802.11b, and Bluetooth.

    Table 2

    The complementary Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP, uses the addressing services provided by the IP stack to format the data for transmission between two or more (in the case of multicast) nodes.

    The Future Is Mobile IP
    Nearly all of the wireless interfaces noted above have been geared toward either IP version 4 or, more recently, IP version 6. However, operating IP sessions over wireless networks involves managing the challenges associated with the dynamic conditions a wireless network offer presents. To address this, the development of Mobile IP was initiated by leading vendors and standards organizations within the wireless industry. Among the features supported in Mobile IP is the ability of an IP session to transition from subnetwork to subnetwork as a mobile device subscriber transitions across several base stations or access points in a series of handoffs. This technology will further facilitate coverage tiers by providing for more robust wireless network connections, which will improve the capability of devices to automatically transition across tiers (or wireless coverage areas).

    Planning for Tiers of Coverage
    For most organizations deploying mobile devices and wireless technology, truly effective coverage tiers are not easily realized. While coverage tiers are possible through the integration of several key wireless technologies in a device to improve the overall experience for the end user, realizing this requires careful thought and planning. Developing your own set of criteria will make the following planning stages, as well as the evaluation process, go more smoothly:
    1.  Determine what areas of coverage are important for a particular user group and/or application. 2.  Identify one or more of the three types of wireless technology that could provide the service area required. In the case of WWAN, this will involve determining what carriers are available in the area. If commercial WLAN hotspots are also feasible, then service plans will also apply here. 3.  Match the mobile device possibilities including third-party hardware interfaces to the type of wireless air interface available. Again, in some cases the intended cellular coverage area may affect device selection. 4.  Following a strategy of seeking out software solutions to fill in the gaps left by hardware, OS and device driver shortcomings are recommended. In particular, seek out applications that utilize built-in connection management APIs and/or third-party utilities that automate connection management for different wireless interfaces.

    Coverage tiers are possible today, and they can be very effective, even to the point of masking some of the deficiencies of a particular wireless technology or carrier service. The key items to look for include integrated wireless interfaces, strong OS support, and wireless-savvy applications.

    About Kevin Wittmer
    Kevin Wittmer works for SmartSignal Corporation as a technical lead. His programming interests span .NET, Java, C++, and Perl.

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