Crafting a wireless network strategy

Pockets of wireless connectivity abound, making mobile and remote work easier than ever. The trouble is with today’s wealth of wireless networks – mobile 2.5G WANs, satellite, broadband wireless last-mile Internet access, Bluetooth personal-area networks, and paging and messaging services – in various stages of standardization and deployment, and applications overlap, make crafting an integrated wireless network plan a tough task.

Travelers Property Casualty Corp. uses a mix of 2.5G services from Sprint PCS with satellite to balance coverage and cost when processing claims from its Catastrophe Response Vehicles in the field.

“Where there are gaps in Sprint coverage, the vans switch over to satellite,” says Raul Matamoros, vice president of telecommunications. Matamoros says Travelers is experiencing 50K bit/sec speeds fairly consistently with the new Sprint service.

New networks

This year, mobile carriers AT&T Wireless Services Inc., Sprint PCS Group and T-Mobile USA Inc. finished upgrading their U.S. network infrastructures to 2.5G packet-switched technology. Per-subscriber throughput is between 20K and 60K bit/sec – a big boost from 14.4K bit/sec, 2G network speeds, but still a far cry from broadband speeds.

Pricing plans for 2.5G vary from the top five U.S. mobile WAN carriers but average about US$50 per month for a respectable chunk of data usage. Unlimited usage costs about $100 per month. Handsets with 2.5G capability that bundle voice access with HTML browsers, Microsoft Corp. applications, digital cameras and other functions cost about $200. By contrast, mobile satellite service from Globalstar and Iridium LLC target voice applications with their below-10K bit/sec speeds. Service can cost up to $4 per minute for roaming, and basic satellite phones cost from $500 to $1,500. So think “rental” for those infrequent trips to the hinterlands.

Wi-Fi fanfare

IEEE 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, technology dominates wireless LAN deployments. These networks provide 11M bit/sec wireless connections in homes and public places.

“Wi-Fi, used within the home for sharing a broadband Internet access link, is the primary driver of Wi-Fi in businesses and hot spots,” says In-Stat/MDR senior analyst Gemma Paulo.

This occurs because once home users get a taste of broadband access from anywhere around the house, they start pressuring their IT departments for the same flexibility in the office and on the road.

Paulo cites wireless routers, which combine a Wi-Fi radio access point, last-mile broadband connections and IP routing, as “the hottest networking product for the home.” She estimates that worldwide home wireless router shipments will reach 6 million this year, and jump to 11 million in 2003.

For mobile executives, commercial Wi-Fi services are emerging from many types of companies for a $30 to $75 monthly subscription fee or a per-day connection charge of usually less than $10. Companies focused specifically on Wi-Fi services are often called wireless ISPs (WISP). Wayport is perhaps the largest WISP, offering services in 475 hotels and 10 airports. Smaller WISPs include Airpath Wireless Inc. and Surf and Sip Inc.

Boingo Wireless doesn’t build its own wireless network, but instead offers subscriptions to services that span the aggregated footprint of many partner Wi-Fi networks. In this way, one subscription buys users coverage in more places. Imminent Boingo Wireless Inc. competitors will be iPass Inc. and GRIC Communications Inc., which are just getting started in Wi-Fi to complement their international remote-access aggregation businesses.

T-Mobile is the first carrier to commit to widespread Wi-Fi services as a high-speed complement to its mobile WAN services, while others such as Cingular Wireless LLC and Nextel Communications Inc. are still agonizing over the Wi-Fi service business case.

“I must take into consideration my current investment and what I have to pay to Mr. [U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael] Powell” for 3G wireless spectrum, said Andrew Goddard, director of Cingular’s Professional Services Group, at a recent meeting of the Silicon Valley Chinese Wireless Technology Association. “Hot spots will be built, whether I build them or not.”

The same themes apply to wireless network decisions as those that have come before: Sometimes you have to trade off bandwidth for distance.

Although Wi-Fi service deployments are on the upswing, it will be a while before they are installed at every truck stop. In the meantime, look to wireless LANs, mobile WANs and even Bluetooth PANs to solve different communications and cabling problems. As client hardware and software vendors continue with their multinetwork integration efforts, the technology-management and cost burdens will ease up for users and IT departments.

Wexler is an freelance networking technology writer/editor who writes Network World’s Wireless in the Enterprise newsletter. She can be reached at