Wi-Fi Planet: Bell exec predicts WLAN boom for enterprise

Wireless packages that speak to individual businesses and industry sectors will drive the wireless local area network (WLAN) market, according to one Bell Canada executive.

“Wireless solutions are really going to drive the enterprise space,” said Kerry Eberwein, Bell’s general manager of enterprise wireless solutions. He was giving the keynote speech Wednesday at Wi-Fi Planet, a wireless technology-minded conference being held in Toronto from March 16 to 18.

He described a hospital in which doctors and nurses use wireless IP phones and personal digital assistants to keep in touch with patients, each other, and to view patient records. These are the sorts of solutions that will make Wi-Fi ubiquitous among Canadian corporations, Eberwein said.

He also made certain predictions for the communication industry, changes that will result from Wi-Fi’s impending popularity. For instance, Eberwein said carriers and service providers will beef up their wide-area networks with more intelligent features, such that the telecom infrastructure would know where an end user is when she connects to the Web, whether she is using a wireline or wireless connection, and what sort of device she’s using.

He predicted the rise of “netputing” as that underlying intelligence gives rise to more of an application service provider model than the PC-centric mode of serving apps that most companies use today.

“Computers and networks are starting to blur,” Eberwein said, adding that increasingly “my PC has no value if it’s not hooked up to the network.”

He said wireless cellular technology would work side-by-side with Wi-Fi, as the former proves to be a popular data connection method for people on the move, and the latter becomes more of the stationary mobile worker’s technology of choice. Eberwein also said 3G cellular networks would provide data speeds near 2.4Mbps in the near future.

However, he also said a number of Wi-Fi factors remain unresolved, not the least of which is the mobile worker’s ability to manage the technology. Eberwein said it’s important for enterprise employees to control their access options, rather than letting Wi-Fi take over their lives. Improved productivity via instant data access everywhere is all well and good as long as employees know when to turn the laptop off.

“Don’t become a slave to this technology,” Eberwein said, adding that “we work too many hours for too long” already. Enterprises should ensure that Wi-Fi is not making employees’ workdays longer than they have to be, he advised.

Eberwein said Wi-Fi standards remain in flux, and it will take time for protocols like 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g to settle into their respective roles. As well, security concerns continue to plague the technology, keeping many an enterprise from implementing WLANs.

According to Geoffrey Mazanec, information systems engineer at Southwestern Vermont Health Care in Bennington, Vt., security concerns didn’t stop his company from installing a WLAN five years ago. Still, the health care institution is researching authentication techniques to keep sensitive information safe from prying eyes, and to keep in line with federal privacy legislation.

Mazanec said it makes sense for carriers like Bell to taking part in the Wi-Fi business sector. In the past, “if you had to connect to your home or office, you had to use a phone line.” But with Wi-Fi as a wireless alternative to wireline connectivity, the phone cord, once Bell’s main business, isn’t as popular. Carriers must have a Wi-Fi strategy, “otherwise they’d be phased out of the picture,” Mazanec said.

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