No Strings Attached


The throngs of techno-savvy and computer-curious who attended last month's Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) trade show at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., were able to do more than admire the industry's latest technologies. Attendees also were encouraged to participate in a revelry of e-mail and Web-surfing via the convention center's vast wireless LAN (WLAN).

The network, sponsored by Boingo Wireless in partnership with Smart City and the Orange County Convention Center, featured 40,000 access points spread over more than 1 million square feet inside the arena, says Robert Mesirow, vice president of conventions for CTIA, Washington, D.C. "The building had the network in place, but it didn't really plan on turning it on yet," he says.

CTIA hoped that heavy discounts on Avaya's 802.11b cards and the ability to connect 126 times faster than via dial-up would encourage attendees to participate in the WLAN offering, Mesirow says. And, if the show is a snapshot version of the rest of the business world, the debut of the convention center's WLAN was bound to be a hit.

The WLAN 802.11a and 802.11b markets created revenues of $1.2 billion last year, according to market researcher Dell'Oro Group, Redwood City, Calif. The 802.11a standard touts data transfer rates of 54 Mbps; the 802.11b standard claims 11 Mbps. By 2006, sales of WLAN equipment alone are expected to reach $4.5 billion, an Allied Business Intelligence report predicts. That same year, 55.9 million WLAN nodes will be shipped around the globe, according to the study.

"We see a tremendous growth in wireless in general," concurs Jack Davis, CEO of Beverly, Mass.-based systems integrator SideBand Systems.

All markets, it seems, are succumbing to the charms of WLANs.

"Verticals have been adopting wireless technology for a long time. There's probably some acceleration in some markets like education and health care," says Ken Delaney, a vice president at Gartner. "Price has dropped by [four times within two years."

Hospitals, such as Springfield, Ohio-based Mercy Medical Center, are using WLANs to transmit patient data upon admission. And Tulane University has implemented roughly 60 percent of the institution's 1,200 access points around campus, says Jed Diem, vice president of information systems at the New Orleans school.

"The purpose is to provide mobility to faculty and students with their laptops and handhelds," Diem says. "The value is in the anytime, anywhere access to information and the ability to constantly be in touch,to be connected. It increases productivity, and it frees up people to spend more time with creative thinking rather than routine doing."

Other organizations have found wireless solves a more mundane role: It allows them to link buildings without laying costly cable. "We didn't want to dig up the parking lot," says Art Rosenberg, supervisor of vocational education at the Garden Grove Unified School District in Garden Grove, Calif. The school installed a WLAN setup to link two classrooms, but has no immediate plans to expand the network, he says.

Integrators say they're seeing more widespread adoption of WLANs.

"We've seen a tremendous increase in acceptance in our customer base," says Jan L%F6ning, chairman and CEO of Mobile Planet, Chatsworth, Calif. "There's now a true alternative to cabling a building. You need to look at whether people work within a building at their desks, or whether [they work away from their desks but still need access to information."

Some businesses are investing heavily in creating WLAN access in public places, such as hotels, airports and coffee shops, L%F6ning says. By 2007, 21 million Americans are expected to access public WLANs, generating service revenue of $3 billion, according to Cambridge, England-based consultancy Analysys. By 2005, cafes and restaurants will host more than 8.03 million access points, while hotels will have 6.83 million access points, the study predicts.

Developing Expertise

With the decline of WLAN hardware margins, some solution providers active in this segment are developing expertise in specific service areas.

"We specialize and focus on wireless communications, and recently we've seen a trend toward commodity-buying, particularly on the in-building stuff," SideBand Systems' Davis says. "We're placing a great deal of emphasis on putting security solutions in for our customers. Security in the 802.11b world is compromised. That's been painfully demonstrated. [Security has to be addressed for the growth of the market."

Security also plays a key role at Nvisicom. In addition to developing wireless networks for end-user clients, the solution provider works with network integrators and high-speed Internet providers as their outsourced WLAN partner or training team, says Randel Maestre, president of the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based firm.

"We don't ask people to create their own cell sites for mobile phones," he says. "Yet with wireless LANs, the whole concept of unplug-and-play is misleading as we're asking people to create their own cell sites%85To truly install high-performance, cost-effective and truly secure networks, you need an expert."

And as WLANs become more prevalent in the home, the need for WLAN professionals will only increase, industry observers say. In the fourth quarter of 2001, shipments of home wireless networking equipment increased 20 percent over the prior quarter, while revenue grew 11 percent, according to researcher InStat/MDR. "It's not easy for a consumer," says Kim Hiller, senior analyst at Gartner. "It's not plug and play."

Adding to the confusion is the upcoming release of a slew of products based on the 802.11a spec. Some observers question the viability of interoperability between that and the 802.11b spec. "I'm not sure I believe in upgradable access points," Gartner's Delaney says. "People don't know what the upgrade will be until it arrives."

While the intricacies of next-generation WLANs need to be tackled, the desire is clear. In a world that becomes more mobile, the ability to communicate from anywhere, by multiple means, is a necessity,whether the surroundings are a university, skyscraper or convention center. n

Alison Diana is a freelance writer and editor based in Merritt Island, Fla. Contact her at adiana@journalist.com.