Toshiba builds Wi-Fi agenda

In a move intended to take wireless computing to the mainstream, Toshiba Corp. next week will announce plans to launch a nationwide wireless service that spans corporate and consumer applications.

The service — named Itsumo, the Japanese word for “always” — will debut at PC Expo in New York as a set of products and services that use Wi-Fi technology to carry data and VOIP (voice over IP) across Wi-Fi and 3G (third-generation) cellular networks.

Driving the “public spaces initiative” is a desire to vastly increase the number of wireless hot spots currently available, said Oscar Koenders, vice president of product development at Toshiba Computer Systems Group in Irvine, Calif.

Included in Toshiba’s hot-spot hit list are malls, coffee shops, and possibly supermarkets, all of which will connect back to Toshiba’s hosting site, effectively turning the company into a national ISP.

“The service will have a notion of state. You can use a PDA to make a voice call over IP. If you are out of range of the wireless LAN it will switch over [to cellular] without losing the connection,” Koenders said.

The technology will also allow users to set the parameters so that when two networks are available either the fastest network or the least expensive can be selected, Koenders said.

Itsumo technology was tested by using a notebook PC to run a movie while driving a car at 50mph from hot spot to hot spot without dropping a frame, according to Koenders.

Although Toshiba will not reveal additional details until the service’s June 25 launch date, the company has indicated that it will most likely deploy the service using its Linux-based appliance servers, which have built-in VPN support. This system-in-a-box approach is designed to simplify deployment for customers.

The servers are currently available for enterprise, small, and midsize companies, with the offer expected to be extended to home users in the future. The home version of the appliance will create a central device for managing home entertainment, offering a DVD jukebox for digital music, digital photos, and video coupled with wireless and VPN connectivity for managing a variety of home electronics.

“You can have a security camera and look back into your home when [you are away],” Koenders added.

The business benefits of a single wireless network accessible from any device anywhere are very tangible, according to John Jordan, a principal at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young in New York.

“Real-time business is an imperative. The value-add is in the services side. If a large enterprise with thousands of employees can get 15 minutes more out of each employee, it is worth millions,” Jordan said.

Toshiba is not the only vendor pursuing a nationwide wireless ISP strategy. Earlier this month IBM Corp. unveiled plans to spearhead a consortium of high-tech companies to create a single, national Wi-Fi network. EarthLink Inc., one of the largest ISPs in the United States, struck a deal last week with Wi-Fi service aggregator Boingo Wireless Inc., which allows users to subscribe once to a Wi-Fi access service and log on to the Internet using any other Wi-Fi provider’s access points.

In the meantime, a grassroots effort led by end-users is creating a network of public-access WLANs (wireless LANs). Despite the entrance of companies such as IBM and Toshiba into the game, some believe free public Wi-Fi access will always be available.

“There will always be places that are not commercially viable where freenets will exist, unless the service providers figure out a creative way to crack down on them and stop them from sharing bandwidth,” said Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance in Mountain View, Calif.

Tom Krazit, a Boston-based correspondent at InfoWorld affiliate IDG News Service, contributed to this article.

WLAN activity

Momentum builds around Wi-Fi.

— VoiceStream buys MobileStar to relaunch public Wi-Fi access.

— Sprint invests in Boingo, considers offering 3G and Wi-Fi.

— IBM Mobile Services plans to head U.S. WLAN system industry consortium.

–Toshiba announces Itsumo.