The dawn of a wireless century

In this first decade of the 21st century, the communications industry is at an interesting transition point.

The 20th century could be called The Wireline Century, with millions of kilometres of copper wire, cable and glass fibre being installed in homes and office buildings, below and above streets, and under oceans.

The 21st century is rapidly becoming The Wireless Century. The motivation for wireless technology is no longer voice, as it was in the last century, but data. This shift has been the impetus for a number of distinct technologies for delivering unique services to users.

The first wireless technology that seems to be on the verge of market introduction is ultrawideband (UWB). Based on IEEE 802.15, UWB is designed for extremely high bandwidth (100Mbps to 400Mbps or higher) across a short distance (less than 32 feet, as mandated by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission) in a point-to-multipoint architecture.

UWB is widely seen as the equivalent of wireline USB, wirelessly connecting printers, monitors, storage devices and other equipment to PCs or servers.

The second wireless technology that is revolutionizing communications is IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi). This technology is rapidly becoming a replacement for wireline Ethernet.

In addition to use in corporate buildings and homes, Wi-Fi is fast becoming the favored remote data-access method, called hot spots, and an alternative access methodology for voice.

Today most new cell phones come with a multimode capability inclusive of 802.11. This lets users piggyback voice access onto an internal corporate network, roam between cellular mobile networks and newer VoIP carrier networks, or access the Internet through a hot spot.

Another example is Skype software, which lets a PDA or laptop invoke a voice call to another Skype user over the Internet, using 802.11 as the access media. This effectively lets users make free, distance-insensitive voice calls.

The third wireless technology in this revolution is IEEE 801.16 (WiMax). This standard has two forms: fixed and mobile. The fixed version is viewed as an alternative to carrier local loop wireline and cable access because it can deliver multi-megabit per second broadband connections in a point-to-multipoint mode over a radius of more than 10 miles to more than 100 simultaneous users.

WiMax is fast developing into the wireless equivalent of T-1, cable or DSL access. The technology is perfect for aggregation of, and carrier network access to, 802.11 hot spots.

The mobile version is another issue. A recent announcement of an alliance between Alcatel and Intel to develop 802.16 mobile technology to compete with current GSM and future Universal Mobile Telecommunications System protocols indicates that cellular networks soon might be a relic of the 20th century.

Currently, there is another wireless standard in this area called IEEE 802.20. Initially, IEEE 802.20 and 802.16 had different focuses, but have evolved with the introduction of the mobile version of 802.16 into direct competitors.

Industry support seems to be shifting to 802.16 because of the availability of components and the advanced state of the standard.

The final technology fueling the wireless revolution is an alternative to fibre. In the U.S. in November, the FCC approved the use of the 71 to 76 GHz, 81 to 86 GHz and 92 to 95 GHz frequency bands. These bands will enable carrier-grade, point-to-point, two-way 2.48Gbps communications transport for more than one mile.

The next generation of this technology will deliver 10Gbps at the same level of quality and distance. This new wireless technology has all the quality traits and cost points required for last-mile, high-bandwidth fibre replacement.

Wireless transport in the 21st century will dominate the delivery of voice, video and data for the shortest distance between your PC and a printer, to 10Gbps building metropolitan-area access and all the broadband mobility points in between. The real “triple play” communications revolution will not be over wires, but through the air.

Dzubeck is president of Communications Network Architects, an industry analysis firm in Washington. He can be reached at [email protected].

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