A Year of Reflection and Hype in the Wireless World

Opinion: 2005 was the year of WLANs, wide-area wireless, WiMax and other things beginning with W.

From a technology perspective, 2005 was a relatively quiet year for enterprise WLANs. After five years of tremendous technological growth and innovation, 2005 instead presented IT administrators with time to re-examine existing deployments while rethinking the role of wireless networking in the enterprise.

For WLANs, the most significant development this year was Ciscos Airespace purchase, which was announced in January. With this investment, Cisco legitimized the wireless switch industry, tacitly acknowledging that scalability as well as centralized intelligence and management would be critical for the wireless networks of the future.

Although most organizations are only kicking the tires of next-generation services such as voice and video, new network deployments should be future-proofed for the coming of these types of real-time services. I expect these services to gather steam during the next two years, and both voice and video will require a robust, flexible wireless network infrastructure.

The next major hurdle will be to increase throughput performance of access points and clients. Unfortunately, the 802.11n specification spent this year mired in the mud, as two, then three, factions fought over what should be included in the proposal.

No matter what the proposal, however, MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) technology will be part of the solution. Airgo Networks gained the most notice for its work with MIMO, releasing three generations of chip sets that have taken wireless throughput over the 100M-bps milestone—but only in consumer-grade equipment.

Maybe you can take it with you

The hype was hot and heavy for wide-area wireless this year, as a number of technologies gained a wider audience and backing from moneyed sponsors. But the cloud of possible legal action cast large shadows over every technology and action.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans rapidly deployed a large-scale, free Wi-Fi network to provide connectivity for government workers and contractors. While not in such dire need of connectivity, cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco and Denver also pursued plans to deploy citywide Wi-Fi services, although it looks like each of these implementations will likely be run by a third party under each citys aegis.

These deployments face much legal and political pressure from telcos fighting the tide against the future. Ive seen nonsensical policies instituted in Pennsylvania against municipal deployments, as well as much squawking from BellSouth about the New Orleans network.

/zimages/2/28571.gifBellSouth took back its Wi-Fi gift to the disaster-ravaged city to make a point about what the company considers unfair competition. Click here to read more.

I expect to see more lawsuits—and laws from government officials supposedly trying to increase competition by outlawing it—against municipal networks, but I feel that, ultimately, many deployments will continue in some form.

The carriers are protecting their own investments by improving data access technologies. A few carriers quickly rolled out enhanced EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) data services, which provide vastly improved user experience over previous-generation technologies, and the first HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) deployment went live this month.

On one hand, EvDO-compatible client devices are becoming a little more common as some hardware vendors (such as Lenovo, with its ThinkPad line) begin to integrate more radios into their devices. Unfortunately, the service plans are still way too expensive for most, and I dont see a significant change in pricing in the near future.

The looming specter of WiMax remained but a ghost in the United States during 2005. Although plans are under way in other countries to leverage fixed-point WiMax (and South Korea is going forward with the personal Wi-BRO, which is based on an early draft of the 802.16e standard), this country is lagging far behind.

At the October WiMax World in Boston, it became abundantly clear that most providers based in the United States are waiting for the IEEE 801.16e draft to get ratified before moving on WiMax—which just happened earlier this month. 802.16e makes accommodations for portable usage, which everyone agrees is the sweet spot, since traditional carriers charge too much for cell phone-based connectivity.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about the WiMax ratification.

Unfortunately, 802.16e makes some dramatic changes to the radio characteristics and is not backward-compatible with the existing 802.16-2004 standard.

A few providers have popped up here and there using pre-WiMax technology in certain markets for fixed wireless connectivity. But I havent detected much actual interest in the standards from these companies. TowerStream CEO Jeff Thompson has told me on a couple of occasions that his company has no immediate plans to migrate pre-WiMax deployments to the latest standard, rationalizing that if they work and are reliable, people dont care whether they are standards-based.

With friends like that in its corner, WiMax faces a significant uphill battle for widespread U.S. adoption over the next few years. Maybe 2008 will be the year of WiMax?

Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at andrew_garcia@ziffdavis.com.

/zimages/2/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.