ONLINE BUYING

Wireless revolution isn't quite the shot heard 'round the world

J.B. Miles

For several years, the trade press has hyped the wireless revolution as if it were as significant as the American Revolution. I admit to having contributed to this hyperbole on more than one occasion.

In fact, though, the growth of wireless technology is an evolution, taking place over time. For feds, too, the move to wireless services will be gradual, far from universal and will take years to accomplish.

And rightly so. In the first place, the government has a huge investment in wired broadband technology and it will not'nor should it'quickly scrap its infrastructure for experimental wireless systems.

Wireless LANs, for example, are good but not great. No wireless LAN in the world can match the speed of a fast broadband network. The transfer rates of many radio frequency wireless systems are moving up from 1- or 2-Mbps speeds to 11-Mbps, and some manufacturers will announce wireless LANs with up to 54-Mbps speeds later this year. This is great for quick, cable-free installations, but it is no substitute for a gigabit broadband LAN backbone.

Wireless phones, personal digital assistants and other Internet appliances have captured the imaginations of consumers. Cahners In-Stat Group, a market research company in Scottsdale, Ariz., recently predicted that the number of wireless-services subscribers will increase from 170 million last year to more than 1.3 billion in 2004.

The sheer numbers make it look tempting, but don't go into the game blindfolded. Wireless device manufacturers would have us believe that browser-equipped wireless phones deliver a wide spectrum of Internet services to customers anywhere in the world. Don't believe it. These devices just aren't ready for broad business applications.

Buying a wireless handset that has an Internet browser doesn't guarantee the carrier in your area supports wireless Internet services or ever will. Even if it does, your phone's 14.4-Kbps transfer speeds, tiny screen and limited memory won't provide you with anything close to the wired Internet services you've come to know and love. Sure, the throughput speeds of Wireless Application Protocol devices are going to increase exponentially, but there's still the limited screen size to deal with.

They are interesting and useful for messaging and quick information such as stock prices and sports scores, but Internet-ready wireless devices can hardly be considered mission-critical.

This leads us to 3G, the latest buzzword in wireless technology. Third generation wireless services promise to provide 144-Kbps to 384-Kbps voice and data throughput'up to 2-Gbps in fixed mode'for video calls, high-speed Internet access and multimedia services for wireless users. Sounds great, and it will be. But don't hold your breath waiting for models that meet the needs of your organization. Service providers are queuing up to buy up 3G bandwidth, probably in the 700-MHz range, but the Federal Communications Commission hasn't put a stamp of approval on any of this yet. Gearing up for 3G will be an expensive, time-consuming process. It will take three or four years until this exciting new technology becomes a viable alternative to existing wireless technologies.

One wireless technology mature and inexpensive enough to be considered useful today by government organizations is Bluetooth. The specification sets a standard for wireless transmission among such devices as PCs, cordless and wireless telephones, PDAs, printers and scanners. Bluetooth allows equipment from a variety of vendors to work together seamlessly over the 2.4-GHz spectrum band to act like a wireless virtual cable.

Bluetooth specs can be embedded in chip sets within adapters and cards that plug into virtually any device to form the wireless connection. Check out the Bluetooth Web site, at www.bluetooth.com.

And stay tuned.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@gte.net.

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