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Posted: 05.04

Columns

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Improving the Wireless Life

Newer, faster wireless technologies promise wide-ranging connections for the unwired.

By Tim Bajarin



I have been living a completely wireless life for more than two years. At the office and at home, all my networks are Wi-Fi based. While on the road, I use a Sprint CDMA PC Card when I’m away from a local hot spot, and my only phone is wireless. I mentioned this in a recent speech and many people in the audience were actually surprised that I could work and live without any wired connections.

Of course, I did not mention how my CDMA connections often run at only 100 kbps, and that my mobile phone often drops signals while traversing Silicon Valley. Even with these limitations, a wireless lifestyle is a truly freeing experience.

The good news is that this wireless lifestyle will only improve, thanks to the next generation of wireless technologies: Wi-Fi and 3G cellular networks. The most important development in Wi-Fi, which is based on IEEE’s 802.11 specifications, is a tri-mode chip that can handle 802.11 a, b and g. Intel is leading the charge with a chip, code-named Calexico, that should start showing up in laptops as early as Q4 of 2004.

As you perhaps know, the most popular 802.11 chips today are based on the 802.11b spec, which has a top speed of 11 mbps. Since then, IEEE released another spec called 802.11g, which is backward compatible with any 802.11b wireless system. With the new tri-mode chip in a laptop, a user could seamlessly gain access to any existing Wi-Fi network.

Maxing Out

There is yet another exciting development in Wi-Fi called WiMax. In the spring of 2003, Intel, Nokia, Proxim and a host of other companies launched WiMax, a non-profit group formed to certify and promote the developing wireless broadband 802.16 standard.

The standard is a wireless MAN (metropolitan area network) technology that will connect 802.11 hot spots to the Internet and provide a wireless extension to cable and DSL for last-mile broadband access. The linear range for 802.16 is 31 miles, and users can connect without a direct line of sight to a base station. The technology also provides shared data rates up to 70 mbps, which, according to WiMax, is enough bandwidth to simultaneously support more than 60 businesses and hundreds of homes with T1-type connectivity.

Some analysts believe WiMax poses a real threat to 3G data technologies. They claim WiMax-powered hot spots could offer wireless broadband access to entire cities, bringing Wi-Fi closer to cellular network levels of ubiquity. However, I suspect WiMax will have greater appeal in rural areas where access to cell networks or DSL is low.

The carriers are already working on ways to combine Wi-Fi and CDMA or GSM networks into a seamless environment. The goal is for users to have a single account that senses which network is available and provides a seamless connection. When near a Wi-Fi hot spot, wireless laptops would auto-connect to the higher speed network; when away from a hot spot, it would auto-connect to the slower CDMA or GSM network.

Walking the EDGE

Next-generation WAN cellular GSM networks (based on EDGE technology) should improve from 40 to 60 kbps to as high as 400 to 500 kbps by late 2004. On the CDMA front, the new 1xRTT EV-DO standard should be up and running by mid 2004 in many U.S. markets, providing speeds up to 1 mbps.

Given these developments, wireless should become much more attractive for business users, luring them into the ranks of the unwired. •

Tim Bajarin is president of Creative Strategies (www.
creativestrategies.com), a consulting firm based in Campbell, Calif.

Copyright 2004 Leisure Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
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