And the wave of the networking future is . . . wireless (again)

And the wave of the networking future is . . . wireless (again)

ATLANTA'Once again, wireless networking is being pegged as the technology to watch at this year's SuperComm telecommunications trade show.

'Wireless is probably the hottest growth sector in telecom today,' said Matt Flanigan, president of the Telecommunications Industry Association, which sponsors SuperComm. Of course, 'that's not hard when everything else is ice-cold.'

Sales of wireless equipment are expected to grow 8 percent this year to $123 billion. There are more than 140 vendors with wireless products on this year's exhibit floor, including WiFi, 3G advanced mobile communications and fixed broadband. A full-day seminar on IEEE 802.11 networking drew 150 paying subscribers.

Wireless networking is 'probably the most important part of this year's SuperComm,' Flanigan said.

He also said that although overall attendance is down slightly from last year, government attendance at this year's show is the highest ever. Exact numbers were not yet available.

'Hot spots' where mobile users can connect with wireless networks in public areas have become the most visible aspect of wireless networking. Using the 802.11 family of standards, some 1,000 Starbucks stores are being wired'or unwired'by T-Mobile USA Inc. of Bellevue, Wash.

Verizon Communications Inc. has announced plans to equip 300,000 phone booths for wireless access, and 10 McDonald's stores in Manhattan are bundling free Internet time with their Extra Value Meals on a network provided by Cometa Networks Inc. of San Francisco. Cometa is a joint venture of AT&T Corp., IBM Corp. and Intel Corp. Hotels also are providing hot spots for meeting and convention visitors.

Analysts predict the number of such hot spots worldwide will grow over the next four years to anywhere from 145,000 to millions. But the analysts also say that the usage rate so far is too low to make the networks profitable. Unless consumer enthusiasm catches up with vendor deployments, WiFi networking could go the way of the dot-com boom in coming years, said Daniel Sweeney, an analyst with Forward Concepts Co. of Tempe, Ariz.

Although the expansion of hot spots in retail venues has been getting most of the press, vendors at SuperComm are introducing wider-area applications to extend wireless access across campuses and even across the country. For inside the office, EDS is introducing new products to integrate wireless networking with traditional desktop equipment.

Companies say government organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Marine Corps are interested in easy-to-deploy wireless WANs. But the wider-area technologies still are largely in the testing or early adoption stages and widescale deployment probably is some time off.

'I would anticipate deployment by larger players later this year or early next year,' said Sai Subramanian, vice president of product management for wireless broadband equipment vendor Navini Networks Inc. of Richardson, Texas.

Navini is selling what Subramanian called a 'logical step forward from WiFi.'

'It's like a marriage of DSL and cellular phones,' he said.

Tower-mounted transponders are accessed by desktop PCs equipped with wireless modems or notebooks with wireless PC Cards. The new Ripwave station being introduced by Navini is about half the size of its previous model and requires less power. It gives users download speeds of up to 3 Mbps and uploads of up to 1.5 Mbps. It has a range of up to 10 miles under some conditions, although, 'typically we talk about three to five miles coverage,' Subramanian said.

Versions of Ripwave operate in the licensed 2.5-GHz-to-2.6-GHz and 2.3-GHz ranges, and in the unlicensed 2.4-GHz range. Coverage suffers the same limitations as cellular phones. Connections often cannot be made from inside buildings. It also can be more cost efficient to use Digital Subscriber Line technology if a good copper infrastructure is available.

Ripwave is being evaluated by several large U.S. carriers and has seen limited commercial deployment, primarily in Europe, but 'no national deployment yet,' Subramanian said.

'We have a lot of municipalities looking at the unlicensed WAN product,' he said. 'Conceptually the federal government would be a good market,' but beyond some talks with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the company has not approached it yet.

Vivato Inc. of San Francisco is adapting the 802.11 standards to wider coverage areas with what it calls WiFi Switches. These are 128-element phased-array panels containing electrically controlled individual antennas that extend the typical range of access points, usually measured in meters, up to 4 kilometers outside.

'The range is increased by antenna gain, not radio power,' said Phil Belanger, vice president of marketing. Each of the 128 antennas in the panel can be focused on a packet-by-packet basis to create narrow 'beams' to increase range.

An indoor switch with two Gigabit Ethernet and two Fast Ethernet ports and a range of up to 300 meters was introduced in May at a list price of $8,995. A longer-range outdoor version will be introduced this month with a list price of $13,995. Both support standard 802.11b client interfaces. Support for the 802.11a and 802.11g standards is planned for future releases.

Belanger said the Marine Corps is testing the equipment for rapid deployment of networks in advance Marine bases.

For those mobile users who need more speed, U.S. Robotics Corp. of Schaumburg, Ill., is announcing for release next month an addition to its Wireless Turbo product family that it says will double the bandwidth available on 802.11g networks.

The new access point, PC Card, PCI adapter and router will use the ACX100 chip set from Texas Instruments Inc. The chip sets use the Packet Binary Convolutional Code modulation scheme to boost the standard 802.11g speed from 54 Mbps to 100 Mbps, said Scott Vance, U.S. Robotics network product manager. A similar product set released by U.S. Robotics last year for 802.11b claimed to double that standard's speed to 22 Mbps.

Because the 802.11g standard is backward-compatible with 802.11b, the new higher speed Wireless Turbo products will be compatible with other products adhering to the 11b and 11g standards.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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