We've spent considerable time investigating wireless connectivity inside and outside the home, and want to provide an update on what we see as the increasing momentum toward "wireless anywhere". This article focuses on the technologies and services for providing broadband beyond the range of Wi-Fi networks. The following article covers the emergence of 802.11g as the new standard for wireless networking in the home.
As more homes have multiple computers, including laptops, a rapidly-increasing number are being equipped with Wi-Fi networks. As people get used to having broadband connections and mobile devices, they start wishing they could have broadband wherever and whenever they want it.
People might want to use broadband in lots of places: at work; at home; in public places like hotels, airports, and coffee shops; outside buildings; and in cars, trains and planes. Many companies are working on a wide variety of technologies and services to make broadband available at all of these places.
"Broadband anywhere" is the objective -- just like using your mobile phone almost anywhere is now taken for granted.
"Inside Out" With Wi-Fi
There are two broad ways to approach "broadband anywhere". One is to extend wireless local area network (WLAN) technology to cover wider spaces inside and outside buildings: we call that the "inside out" approach. The other is to extend wireless metropolitan area network (WMAN) technology to reach into buildings - we call that "outside in". Many companies are working on these approaches; we believe both will play a role.
"Wi-Fi" is key to the "inside out" approach. The technology is very inexpensive and has become so popular that the word "Wi-Fi" has been picked up by the popular press and often misused as a synonym for "wireless".
"Wi-Fi" refers literally to The Wi-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit trade association formed “to certify interoperability of wireless Local Area Network products based on the IEEE 802.11 specification”. It is also used as shorthand for “Wi-Fi Certified” to refer to products which have passed the Alliance’s interoperability tests.
The original "Wi-Fi" designation was for lower-speed 802.11b products; it has been extended to include higher-speed products based on the 802.11a standard and will be further extended to 802.11g when that draft standard is ratified later in 2003.
The 802.11 technology covered by the "Wi-Fi" designation was developed as a WLAN technology designed to cover a building. It operates in unlicensed frequency bands with low power and has a relatively short range. The WLAN usually connects to a wireline for broadband access - typically T1 or DS3 to an office, cable modem or DSL to a home.
Hotspots, Hot Zones and Community Networks
As Wi-Fi equipped notebook computers and PDAs continue their rapid growth curve, companies are focusing attention on providing wireless services outside the home. One approach is to provide Wi-Fi "hotspots" in public places, and extend the hotspots so a series of them form a "hot zone".
Continuing to expand these areas is one way to start covering a larger area and some are working on "community networks". However, the low power and contention within unlicensed bandwidth by multiple sources suggests this may be a difficult model to scale. The growth and expansion of Wi-Fi from a home to a neighborhood to a metropolitan area looks like the waves coming out from a stone thrown in a pond--they are rings of increasing width which fade out as they get farther from the center point.
"Outside In" with Metropolitan Area Networks
A wireless metropolitan area network (WMAN) approaches the problem a different way. These technologies provide wireless broadband services from a tower to buildings and to the streets around them.
Several companies offer technologies specifically for "fixed broadband wireless" designed to provide broadband service to communities not served by wireline services. Some, based on low-cost 802.11 technologies, are suited for smaller areas and light usage; others are proprietary. Most require a "line of sight" (LOS) from the base station tower to the individual home, and use an outdoor antenna at the home pointed to the base station. Some use "mesh networks" to route data from one home to another until it reaches the base station.
Phone companies have been on a quest to extend their coverage from the narrowband voice world to the broadband data world, and have made huge expenditures on spectrum in which to offer so-called "3G" services capable of significantly broader bandwidth than today. 3G technologies with names like WCDMA and EVDO continue to be developed and have been deployed in some places. However, some now believe that these "traditional" technologies will provide only limited bandwidth at a high price, and that other approaches may be more appropriate for wireless broadband data -- especially for the consumer market.
A new group of young companies has been focused on developing technologies to cover wide areas, just as cellular can do, but starting from the premise that they are being designed to carry broadband data -- and that voice is just another data type which will be accomodated. These technologies aim to provide true broadband with data rates of 1-2 Mbps to many simultaneous users at prices comparable to wireline broadband. They typically are "non line of sight" (NLOS) and capable of penetrating trees and walls to reach into buildings. They are usually targeted to notebook PCs and PDAs, use a small modem or PCMCIA card, and are customer installed. They generally operate in licensed spectrum. A few of these technologies are based on 3G; most are not.
Although still in the early evolution stages these technologies appear to be proving themselves in market trials and some are now moving to deployment. Here are some recent developments:
The IEEE is busy formalizing standards for these metropolitan area broadband technologies. IEEE 802.16 focuses on fixed wireless, and has recently completed final approval of several standards. IEEE 802.20 has just been formed to focus on mobile applications.
These WMAN technologies can be used over a wide area and in a moving car; they can also be used at a coffee shop or at your home if that is within range. We call this the "outside-in" approach for "broadband anywhere".
Room For Both
At the moment, the "inside-out" approach appears to be ahead because of economies from the high volume of Wi-Fi equipment and the enormous hype in the press. The "outside-in" technologies are potentially disruptive to existing players in hot spots and wireline broadband. Once deployed over large areas, they could make hot spots and wireline broadband access redundant.
We do not believe that one approach will wipe out the other. Each is likely to find a zone in which it operates most effectively and is the most cost-effective for its application. We believe there will be increasing integration by operators of systems which use both WLAN and WMAN technologies with handoffs between them based on the user location and movement. Several WMAN companies have announced seamless hand off between Wi-Fi inside and near a building to their WMAN technology outside.
Where there are dense aggregrations of people and users - especially in and near buildings -- it's likely that wireline to the building and wireless in and around it will make the most economic sense. Further away from buildings, or in areas with low population density, pure wireless makes the most sense.
In the short term, because the efforts related to Wi-Fi and WLAN technologies are typically handled by different units of companies than the WMAN technologies, users are likely to see a wealth of choices -- with lots of overlap and confusion. For the companies, it may result in duplicate spending and resources. We expect this to settle down over time.
Things to Watch
Broadband wireless is in its infancy, and there are more questions than answers at this point. Here are some things we're watching:
Wireless broadband technologies are all in their infancy, and the applications are largely unknown. People's behavioral habits always adapt slowly to the availability of new capabilities.
We believe the end game is unlikely to be dominated by one technology. The outcome will be determined by the economics of various technologies, the development of popular applications to drive volumes, and consumer willingness to pay for these applications.
It's too early to predict the outcome, but it's fun to watch the game.
( www.wi-fi.org ) ( www.clearwire.com ) ( www.ipwireless.com ) ( www.navini.com ) ( www.arraycomm.com ) ( www.kt.co.kr/kt/eng ) ( www.broadbandhomecentral.com/report/backissues/Report0212_12.html ) ( www.flarion.com ) ( www.hanaro.com ) ( www.xtratyme.com )