Wireless Networking: State of the Industry

In the May 23 edition of Mobile & Wireless UPDATE, I looked at specialized solutions for your Wi-Fi (the 802.11b wireless standard) network. This time, I conclude the wireless-networking discussion with a look at the state of the industry, including trends and the future of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks provide significant and useful mobile-enterprise and consumer solutions. Many organizations and consumers have deployed Wi-Fi systems during the past year, increasing the technology's market penetration and success. For example, I enjoy the ability to access airport Wi-Fi networks when I travel. However, the standard still has challenges to overcome.

In the United States, most Wi-Fi hot spots are standalone access points (APs) in airports and other public places. When I travel, I find that these hot spots are typically incompatible with one another, and I commonly experience connection difficulties and increased costs because I must establish a new account at each location. To ensure consistent coverage and billing, the industry needs to consolidate Wi-Fi hot spots. Another problem involves connection speed; although Wi-Fi connections can be as fast as 11Mbps, providers' Internet connections are often much slower (about 128Kbps), resulting in poor network performance. Some companies, however, are trying to consolidate hot spot services with wireless carriers; for example, VoiceStream recently purchased MobileStar, the operator of many nationwide Wi-Fi hot spots.

The wireless LAN industry continues to make advancements with new technologies; 802.11a is on the market now, and 802.11g is due soon. The 802.11a standard is similar to 802.11b but provides wireless data speeds as fast as 54Mbps and uses the 5.5GHz spectrum range, which has less interference than the 2.4GHz spectrum range that 802.11b uses. The 802.11g standard, which will feature full compatibility with already-deployed 802.11b devices, will soon appear in devices that provide 54Mbps speeds and use the 2.4GHz range.

Bluetooth has been slow to gain market momentum, primarily because Bluetooth chips are most often embedded in other devices such as phones and PDAs, whereas 802.11b uses standalone APs and access cards. Thanks to its power savings and wider-spectrum benefits, however, Bluetooth will grow in popularity. Many hardware vendors have already released Bluetooth-enabled products, and thousands more are being developed. Expect to see many Bluetooth-enabled devices on the market in the next few years.

Bluetooth 2.0 is also on the horizon and will debut in specialized devices that provide improved range and bandwidth. Because of the direct integration of Bluetooth chips with devices such as mobile phones, Bluetooth 2.0 will offer interesting functionality such as the ability to use an available local Bluetooth connection to make calls and transfer data. When a Bluetooth connection isn't available, customers can use third-generation (3G) and 2.5G technologies. This type of functionality is available today in some PDAs that use both 802.11b and Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD)/General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) standards. Because of 802.11b's power-consumption requirements, however, we won't see the technology built directly into mobile phones.

In the next regular edition of Mobile & Wireless UPDATE, I'll change gears and look at other aspects of the mobile and wireless industry. See you then.

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