WLANs will peak cellular firms

With the firm belief that wireless local area networking is poised to gain popularity and wide-scale adoption, 3Com is investing heavily in the development of the technology and has claimed that cellular providers are planning to do the same. Last month, 3Com predicted that throughout the latter part of this year, cellular phone providers are expected to “leverage wireless LANs as a means to deliver new enterprise data services,” which could potentially boost demand for wireless products from vendors – 3Com included.

3Com Canada’s Nick Tidd, managing director in Mississauga, Ont., said that it is a more cost-effective venture for carriers to utilise 802.11b networks – currently the most deployed wireless standard – as opposed to offering services on their own cellular networks, which are expensive for both the provider and the user. Cellular providers are presently in the process of developing their third-generation networks which would allow them to offer services at higher speeds than those currently available. 3Com believes that utilizing wireless LANs will allow cellular providers to offer services to customers until these third-generation networks are readily available and scale down in price. According to 3Com, cellular interest in wireless LANs would offer customers additional access to high-speed applications, including corporate e-mail in locations like airports, conference centres and hotels.

“Now (in places like the Calgary and Vancouver airports) users are able to log onto the network and get a much faster pipe,” Tidd said, referring to last year’s installation of wireless LANs in the two airports. “Therefore, you are able to do things like e-mail and are able to gather much larger data files than you could in the past on cellular phones.”

However, according to some industry analysts and at least one 3Com customer, high user interest and demand for services over wireless LANs has yet to be seen. Pam Currie, rooms division manager for the Travelodge Hotel in Saskatoon, said she has not seen much demand for the use of the hotel’s wireless LAN from guests. Although the Travelodge Hotel has had a 3Com wireless LAN installed for more than nine months and is currently the only hotel in Saskatoon offering this connectivity, “we are just starting to see people booking here because of the wireless capability,” Currie said.

Ajax, Ont.-based analyst Ian Angus, president of Angus Telemanagement Group Inc., is wary of 3Com’s predictions, and offered that the idea of customers receiving services from carriers over wireless LANs is not a realistic prospect, even in the mid-term.

“Number one, we are in an industry where an enormous number of things are going on, and to claim that you know for sure ahead of time which things will be successful and which won’t is at the very best a guess,” Angus said. “I think we are going to continue to see activity in this area, but I have been hearing that we are ‘very soon’ going to be able to connect everything to everything else for a very long time.”

But, according to Bell Mobility, there is definite interest in wireless LAN technology from cellular carriers. Larry Baziw, director of wireless Internet Innovations at Bell Mobility, stands behind the 3Com claim and said that as applications become mobile-enabled, users will see the convergence of cellular and wireless LAN solutions.

Iain Grant noted that the possibility of having current desktop applications like mobile-enabled e-mail will likely drive this trend into reality. Grant, managing director for Seaboard Group in Brockville, Ont., said that the idea of always-on e-mail is one service that will propel the demand for constant access.

However, Grant added that when it comes to mobile applications, speed is the main issue. He said that it makes sense for cellular providers to exploit the higher bandwidth in the 802.11b wireless LAN, which can now transmit data at speeds of up to 11Mbps, a far cry from 14.4kbps.

“Up until recently, when you were surfing the Web at home, you were doing it at 1Mbps,” Grant explained. “When you were doing it wirelessly, you were doing it at 14.4kbps. That is called wading the Web as opposed to surfing it. Speed is an issue that hasn’t gone away yet and that is really luring the demand for wireless data.”