Wireless wonderLAN

Laptops have become more of a necessity than a luxury to many Canadian enterprises. Now ultra-portable palmtop devices are finding their way into the pockets of executives and sales teams. Information on the go is becoming increasingly important in today’s news-saturated society.

But even if users possess portable devices, up-to-date information is only available as long as they’re linked to the network. Such a link typically involves a wire and that puts users in a bind. Although they might have a portable device, they can only be portable as long as they’re not up to date.

Enter the wireless LAN. With enterprises pouring more and more money into laptops and handhelds, some industry observers believe businesses are set to invest in wireless LANs to enhance in-building portability and complement existing wireline LANs.

“If you look at the Gartner view,” said Bob Egan, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., “we draw this ‘S’ curve with an exaggerated front end where you have the hype cycle, then you go through the trough of disillusionment, then you climb the maturity curve and that’s where we are.

“We’re pulling through some of the issues around interoperability, we’re pulling through some of the issues on cost, we’re pulling through the issues around performance and by the way there’s a demand within the enterprise.”

A wireless LAN is exactly what you’d expect it to be — a LAN with no wires. Instead of Ethernet cards and cables, workstations use Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum radios, Frequency Hopping radios or infrared light to communicate with transceiver units which receive and transmit information. The transceivers hand off information to other transceivers until the information reaches its final destination — either a wireless workstation or a transceiver interfacing with a wireline LAN and its associated servers.

While wireless LANs may not be familiar to most enterprise users, they’re not a new phenomenon. They’ve been a staple in specialized environments such as factories, warehouses and hospitals for many years.

In a typical warehouse situation, companies want to keep a real-time account of their inventory as it enters and exits. With a wireless LAN, they can use bar-code scanners to scan inventory and the inventory information travels back to the network and gets recorded instantaneously on the company’s inventory system.

One Canadian organization using wireless LAN gear for a specialized application is the Canadian Coast Guard. Last spring, the coast guard’s central region, which runs from Thunder Bay, Ont., to Prescott, Ont., installed wireless LAN transceivers from Calgary-based Wi-LAN Inc. on several of its bases and vessels. The units allow the ships to receive administrative information while docked at the bases.

Roger Doucette, acting chief, ships systems, electrical engineering, for the coast guard in Ottawa, said the engineering group had been considering connecting the bases and ships through fibre optics. But the cost was prohibitive — $15,000 per ship and $100,000 per base.

The Wi-LAN transceivers came in at only $3,500 per unit. While their throughput isn’t quite as good as a T-1 line, Doucette said, the transceivers were simple to install and have worked well.

“When a vessel comes within about a kilometre of shore, the transmitter on shore will instantly recognize the slave and give it a universal IP address,” he said. “That ship is then on the LAN.”