Wireless for the Enterprise

IT Pro Guide: Guy Matthews takes a look at the wireless alternatives currently being offered to businesses and asks which is likely to be the winner in the long run

As the business world continues to embrace all things wireless, many enterprises are beginning to consider offering employees a secure and effective wireless alternative to the high-speed fixed line DSL connectivity they currently enjoy on their desktops.

But they are discovering an array of wireless broadband options that's not particularly easy to navigate. There's a whole range of different vendors and service providers out there, each offering its own distinctive roadmap for how broadband wireless can work. And with so many of their claims based on technology that remains largely untested in the real world, or which is based on incomplete standards it's hard to predict with any certainty which of the technologies will have staying power.

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Here we consider some of the leading contenders for tomorrow's business wireless technology of choice.

Local versus wide

Broadband wireless access at the moment is largely a matter of WiFi hotspots, which boast a range of around 300 metres. This model obviously has shortcomings for a large distributed enterprise with wireless networking needs that go over multiple sites.

Hence WiMAX from Intel - wide area wireless technology that enables transmitters to cover areas several kilometres wide. This lets service providers deliver up to 10Mb/sec of symmetric bandwidth to businesses located near their base stations, offering sufficient capacity and quality of service (QoS) to support requirements like IP telephony and video streaming.

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But WiMAX, let's not forget, is deliverable to the end user in one of two ways - fixed and mobile.

Providers of fixed WiMAX services are currently launching a convincing challenge to other fixed line broadband alternatives, such as SDSL (symmetric DSL, which transmits and receives data in both directions at equal speed) and metropolitan area network (MAN) Ethernet (a networked area that's larger than a LAN, but smaller than a WAN). WiMAX's case is that it's much cheaper than these alternatives for pretty much the same performance. And although new, it is definitely here.

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There are already service providers offering fixed WiMAX services to London business customers, backed by the sort of things that businesses care about, like the security of virtual private networks (VPNs) and the peace of mind delivered by service level agreements. For example, UK-based Urban WiMAX is offering businesses in the Westminster area a fixed WiMAX-based network with a range of several kilometres and speeds of up to 10Mb/sec. It should be clear before long whether fixed WiMAX-based services of this sort have been taken to heart by a critical mass of business network managers.

Wireless on the move

No such certainty faces mobile WiMAX, which promises in the longer term to deliver the same sort of services to users on the move. The 802.16d standard that fixed WiMAX services are based on is well understood and tested. But the quite different 802.16e standard behind mobile WiMAX is not so widely trusted. Nor is demand for mobile WiMAX at a sufficient pitch yet to convince service providers to invest in it. In short, mobile WiMAX is just not ready yet and may not be fully available for a year or two.

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Intel says it's shipping mobile WiMAX cards and integrated adapters later on in 2006 to boost mobile WiMAX credibility. But there's no saying whether businesses will buy it. Certainly mobile WiMAX faces problems not only with its own standards, and potential incompatibility with fixed WiMAX, but also with competition from other mobile wireless options.

A new generation

Even by the time mobile WiMAX happens, and analysts are saying it is the only WiMAX option with any kind of long term potential, enterprise users may have settled for something else.

And that something else may well be 3G. It has not had an easy time of it in the last few years, but by the end of the year users of mobile handsets are going to have a whole new type of 3G connectivity available to them: HSDPA (High-Speed DownLink Packet Access). This will deliver around 1.5Mb/sec of bandwidth to anyone with an appropriately enabled device.

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So-called Super 3G has already received heavy backing from mobile operators like T-Mobile and Vodafone. All carriers have to do to make HSDPA work is not to do what they did with 3G the first time around. They all but killed it with tariffs that were as high as they were confusing.

If the key players can get HSPDA services right then they may have the attention of businesses who want something more mobile than fixed DSL and fixed WiMAX, and with a wider range than Wi-Fi. If it beats mobile WiMAX to market, then HSDPA could be the one to watch.

Summing up

Ultimately the wireless solution that businesses will eventually choose will depend on pricing, simplicity of tariffs and of the technology itself, and also its long-term prospects.

But don't bank on a single technology emerging as a winner in the short term. Enterprises are likely to spend the next couple of years testing a number of possibilities to keep their options open.

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