Security is no barrier to WLAN plans

Companies citing security as the reason why they are choosing not to deploy wireless LANs (WLANs) within the enterprise are either making excuses for not being able to afford the technology or simply don’t want to get involved in its complexity, according to one industry observer.

While discussing the problems and paybacks of managing WLAN solutions during the Wi-Fi Planet Conference in Toronto on Wednesday, Craig Mathias, a principal at advisory firm Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., said that WLANs are still his favourite part of the wireless industry. He added however, that when it comes to managing the technology, “it’s not as easy as it needs to be.”

When asking companies why they are not currently deploying WLANs within the enterprise, Mathias said that security often pops up as the main reason, but added that this is a weak excuse.

“When you come down to it, I think security is a red herring today. If you want to build a secure WLAN you can,” Mathias said. “The big issue now is TCO (total cost of ownership).”

Andris Dindzans, director of product management at WLAN solutions provider Trapeze Networks in Pleasanton, Calif., said that because the equipment price of WLAN technology is relatively low, TCO is not the issue keeping enterprises from deploying the technology. Instead, he said, it is the operational expenses associated with WLANs.

A critical factor of this operational expense, according to Dindzans, is incurred in a company’s radio frequency (RF) environment, “in other words, what is going on in your air.” He went on to say that finding out what could be interfering with a company’s WLAN in the air — including microwaves and possibly Bluetooth — is essential to deploying a successful WLAN.

On top of dollars and cents, Farpoint’s Mathias said that the difficulties involved with deploying a WLAN are keeping many potential users on the fence. He said that although there are many solutions in the marketplace that are simple, “all solutions have a base level of complexity that turns off people that don’t have a computer science degree.”

The companies that are embracing the technology are doing so because of a social drive as opposed to a technology drive, noted Luc Roy, senior director of product management at Boston-based Chantry Networks, a WLAN solutions provider.

He said that employees often feel guilty about leaving their desks to take a break or to work from a different location within their office building. He added, however, that if they are able to take a portable device with them that allows them to stay connected, so they feel much better about moving around.

Roy recognized that although to many people this may not sound like a good enough business reason to deploy a WLAN, he said that by making employees happy, “you’ll get good work.”

“When people are happier they are more productive. It’s as simple as that,” he added.

Although the social aspect may be helping WLAN technology gain popularity in some organizations, deployment numbers are still low. In 2003, only eight per cent of enterprises worldwide had deployed WLANs, according to Mathias, and four per cent of those were vertical industries.

In order to have this percentage grow, companies would have to see clear business benefits, Mathias said. However, businesses are soon going to realize that if they are not wireless they are not getting the most out of their most expensive assets — their employees, he added.

When it came to offering Wi-Fi on a grand scale, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) in British Columbia concluded that the benefits would far outweigh the risks.

Whistler, a popular vacation spot in Western Canada, is home to 10,000 permanent residents and two million visitors annually, a population that sparked the interest of one Wi-Fi service provider.

“We had a knock at the door one day and it was V-Link (Inc.),” said John Rae, manager of strategic alliances for the RMOW.

Due to the concentration of accommodations in the main village of Whistler — which is where approximately 65 per cent of all the lodgings are situated — Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based V-link thought this made for an interesting proposition, which later turned into Yodel Enterprises.

Yodel is a wireless Internet service provider (WISP) that is owned in equal parts by V-Link and the RMOW. A deal was struck in Sept. 2002 in which the Whistler municipal government agreed to allow V-Link to set up shop in the town to provide Wi-Fi access to businesses and hotels in the community.

In an 18-month timeframe V-Link and the RMOW began partnerships with over 60 businesses in the area in order to gain access to the rooftop locations V-Link would need to place its Wi-Fi access points.

Currently, with Wi-Fi access in 2,000 resort rooms and the service offered for approximately $11, Yodel is bringing in $137,500 annually or $2,600 weekly. Because Whistler is a vacation spot, this number does fluctuate depending on the number of resort guests.

Keith Borg, director of business development for V-Link said that one of the challenges that existed in the project came with the size of the community and its population. He said that because Whistler is so concentrated, V-Link didn’t want bridging to happen.

Housing the gateway with Radiant Communications, a Vancouver-based ISP which buys its last mile of fibre-optic network from Telus, solved this problem.

The weather in the community that, according to Rae, is no stranger to frequent snowstorms also posed a challenge. Pierre Trudeau, CTO and founder of Colubris Networks Inc., a Wi-Fi equipment provider that collaborated with V-Link on this project, said that the partners are working to react in real-time to frequent and sometimes unforeseen changes in the RF environment.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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