Wireless Wild West
Posted: 04.04 - By Bob Egan

As April 15th rolls around, it’s an appropriate time for IT managers to reflect on other certainties besides taxes. When it comes to mobility and in particular wireless, the short list includes: 1) There’s no free lunch; 2) There are no guarantees in wireless; and 3) Enterprise IT must establish a wireless device use policy.

Case in point: In February, the FCC fined the Best Wok restaurant in Westville, NJ, $10,000 for using a souped-up cordless phone system that had a range of more than one mile. The phones were bought on the gray market and weren’t authorized for sale in the United States because they use 145.8376 MHz, a frequency reserved for amateur (ham) radio, which requires an FCC license. Ten thousand dollars would have bought a lot of cellular minutes, so the business case for attempting to make an end-run looks pretty weak. If anyone should understand the concept of no free lunch, it’s a restaurant owner.

The Internet makes it easier than ever to buy out-of-band, two-way radios, cell phone jammers and other equipment that doesn’t comply with FCC rules. But even legal equipment routinely causes interference, as any Wi-Fi user knows. Part of the problem is the explosion of unlicensed wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which are victims of their own success as each new user moves into what is a no-man’s land from a quality-of-service aspect. The coffee shop owner who sets up a wireless LAN to attract more customers is lucky to know what an SSID is, let alone how to make sure that his signal isn’t leaking into the adjacent law office, causing interference or vice versa.

Don’t expect unlicensed spectrum such as 2.4 GHz to get any better either. That’s because much of the technology that uses it—particularly Wi-Fi—is a commodity. Sure, equipment vendors could improve their products’ filtering and interference-mitigation techniques, but that would drive up the retail price, hurting sales. Wouldn’t some users, particularly enterprises, pay a premium for a Wi-Fi card or access point that can knife through interference so data rates don’t flounder? Probably, but that’s assuming that the person signing the purchase order is even aware of the problem. Perhaps that’s why the FCC’s push to make wireless equipment more robust has floundered.

Licensed technologies don’t necessarily fare better. A prime example is the 800MHz band, home to Nextel and public-safety communications such as police departments’ two-way radios. The crowding has reached the point that interference between the services routinely knocks them off the air. In March, FCC chairman Michael Powell told a Congressional subcommittee that fixing the problem will cost billions. In other words, no free lunch here, either.

So what can a CIO or IT manager do to ensure that a Wi-Fi or cellular service will provide consistently reliable communications? Unfortunately, the answer is: not much. With wireless technologies shoehorned into every inhabitable sliver of spectrum from DC to daylight, the problem is simply too big—literally and figuratively—for regulators or market forces to fix; caveat emptor. Having said that, it is important for business to establish a wireless policy in an attempt to mitigate the self-inflicted interference between radios that find their way inside a company. It is equally important to bar the use of any non-approved devices by understanding FCC policies.

[Bob Egan, a 25-year industry veteran, is president of Mobile Competency (www.mobilecompetency.com). He can be reached at [email protected]]


Leisure Publications