Report: enterprises need to think wireless

A report from Toronto-based SeaBoard Group Inc. says wireless adoption is on the way up in Canada, although it seems the technology is taking hold in unlikely places.

SeaBoard identified some 500 Wi-Fi access points in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa for its report, entitled Adoption of Wireless LANs in Canada: SOHO to Enterprise.

Many of the Wi-Fi installations were not found in major corporate or industrial areas. Instead, networks were concentrated in small business venues and in affluent residential neighbourhoods.

“Small media companies are the biggest in terms of where demand is,” said Brian Sharwood, principal at SeaBoard in Toronto.

It may seem enterprises are at the tail end of the adoption curve, but that’s not to say corporate Canada eschews Wi-Fi. In fact, according to SeaBoard, nearly 70 per cent of respondents surveyed for its study said they had deployed a wireless network between December 2000 and January 2003, showing that wireless usage is increasing among big businesses.

And with numerous benefits of Wi-Fi – lower cost of deployment compared to wireline networks, as well as increased flexibility and interoperability – wireless networks are increasingly attractive to businesses.

Sharwood said Wi-Fi provides faster connectivity than wide-area, cellular-based systems, such as networks traditionally employed by mobile service providers.

For instance, compare Wi-Fi to “3G,” one of the latest systems for wireless carriers. 3G infrastructure “could cost in the millions [of dollars] and the speeds are in the hundreds of Kbps,” Sharwood said, adding that Wi-Fi provides quicker connections. “With a wireless [local] area network (WLAN) you’re getting Mbps.”

Some carriers, notably Bell Mobility and Telus Mobility, are deploying Wi-Fi service while they continue the drive toward 3G. Can competing wireless platforms, Wi-Fi and 3G, coexist? Kerry Eberwein, Bell Canada’s Ottawa-based general manager, cabling and wireless LAN, seemed to think they could.

“We have had a very high expressed demand from our business customers to install and deploy wireless LAN solutions in the enterprise space,” he said.

Eberwein added that business professionals using the Wi-Fi service are doing so armed with laptops; they are either checking e-mail or downloading documents.

Post-secondary institutions have certainly latched on to Wi-Fi. For example, McGill University in Montreal launched its network February 2001.

So far 14 libraries, lounges, study areas and several corridors have coverage. By the end of the year, the university estimates that 90 per cent of its 120 buildings will have coverage, said Gary Bernstein, director of network and communications services at McGill.

He explained that student interest drove the Wi-Fi project and now the university rents out laptops for pupils to use.

“Wireless is a natural because [as a student] you don’t have to stand in line to use it and you’re fairly mobile within the constraints of the coverage,” Bernstein said. He added that usage is still on the uptake.

The SeaBoard report indicated that security remains an inherent problem hindering wireless adoption. As Sharwood said, protective measures such as wired equivalent privacy (WEP) are available. If networks remain unsecured, it’s due to “choice or ignorance” on the part of users, he said, pointing out that although security protocols exist, some people simply don’t use them.

Bell’s Eberwein said consumer and enterprise users approach security differently. For the most part, corporate users need additional security.

That’s the case at McGill. The university has taken its own security needs to heart.

“We just didn’t want anyone [outside the campus] to have access to our network…. We’re doing the authentication first. After the authentication is done, a VPN tunnel is created. We’ve forced people to not only authenticate but once they have, we’ve increased the security,” Bernstein said.