New promise in wireless products

Fast wireless data is wonderful. It’s too bad we can’t get it reliably outside the office wireless LAN. Agreement on standards is less than good, and the infrastructure simply isn’t there.

At the Demo 2002 conference in Phoenix, a number of new products were shown that have the potential to radically improve wireless technology as we know it. Demo 2002 is sponsored by IDG Executive Forum, a unit of International Data Group Inc., which publishes Computerworld (US).

Lost in Space?

The product that, on its face, seemed the goofiest turns out to have some real potential value.

Space Data Corp. in Chandler, Ariz., has a truly novel approach to solving one of cellular telephony’s biggest problems – lack of coverage. Cell towers have a range of only six to 12 miles. That’s fine in urban or built-up areas, but there are vast areas of the U.S. where your cell phone will do you no good whatsoever because there isn’t a cell tower within range, and there likely never will be.

Space Data has an agreement with the U.S. government’s National Weather Service, which releases some 70 weather balloons twice each day from across the country. Space Data attaches a radio transceiver to each weather balloon, and when the balloons attain their working altitude of 100,000 feet, the radio has a coverage circle approximately 350 miles in diameter.

With this SkySite Network, Space Data expects to be able to help traditional wireless carriers supplement their coverage areas without the massive expense of building more towers. Though each balloon’s transceiver can’t handle a large amount of traffic, its capacity seems well-matched, however, to the expected traffic in remote areas.

At the conference, we saw Space Data launch a weather balloon. The obvious question, what happens when the balloon bursts or runs out of helium, has a carefully thought-out answer. The transceiver has a parachute to bring it gently back to earth, and it carries a label saying, “This package contains no hazardous material. If found, please drop in the nearest mailbox.”

How Fast is Fast Enough?

It’s hard to think of using the terms wireless and broadband together, but San Jose-based ArrayComm Inc. demonstrated an intriguing system that can deliver both in a manner akin to that of the cell phone network. The company’s i-Burst offers up to 1Mbps sustained bandwidth, operating over cellular networks using specially designed antennas. This is about 40 times the bandwidth of proposed third-generation and General Packet Radio Services wireless systems.

I-Burst is a new system, a different technology, and as such, it faces big obstacles. Like the cellular phone networks, i-Burst depends on a network of antennas that can hand off signals to one another. It’s an expensive infrastructure to build, and Nitin Shah, ArrayComm’s executive vice-president, acknowledges that “it’s a big gamble; but it works so well.” The company’s strategy is to distribute a reference design for both transmitters and receivers, then license the technology and designs to others. The system is being adopted in Korea, where Japan-based Kyocera Corp. will manufacture the hardware. The performance of i-Burst is seriously fast and plenty good enough for high-quality, full-screen streaming video.

Finding the Network

There are lots of 802.11b wireless Ethernet networks around. You can find them in hotels, airports, Starbucks coffee shops and many other places. That is, you can find them if you know they’re there, and if you can gain access to them. Changing encryption parameters and network identification names is often necessary, but not easy, and how do you find out what the correct information is anyway?

Sky Dayton, founder of Atlanta-based Earthlink Inc., has a new company and a new idea. Boingo Wireless Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif., plans to offer a service that will automatically sense what wireless networks and access points are within range. All you have to do is install Boingo’s software on your notebook. The software handles all the network settings and authentication, and it contains a database of all nationwide participating networks. Each time you use the system, the software and the database are automatically updated. The service isn’t necessarily cheap, but it can make high-speed wireless connectivity available in lots of places. Plans range from US$15 to US$75 per month, with varying numbers of connections available.