By Tim Landgrave
The technology industry is used to dealing with the uncertainty caused by opposing forces. Corporate planners have lived through the Microsoft vs. IBM battles of the 80s and early 90s, Web applications vs. enterprise applications (client/server, mainframe, or Windows) in the mid 90s, and countless other skirmishes. One of the biggest—and most important—battles is brewing over who will own the pipe that provides remote voice and data connectivity to corporations.
The combatants include a combination of well-known connectivity providers and technology companies looking for crossover revenue in the connectivity space. The winners of this battle will shape the future of corporate connectivity for decades to come.
I've seen the future and it's wireless
The only certainty in this particular battle is the outcome. When it’s over, regardless of which companies win, we'll be connecting to our home offices and each other without having to deal with wire. And unlike prior technology revolutions in which we had to wait for users to catch up, the users are clamoring for the technology now. Almost every home in the United States with an income above the poverty level has wireless phones running on the 900-MHz or 2.4-GHz frequency and one or more cell phones running on a CDMA or 1.xG network. People understand the benefits of wireless phone access. And they’re beginning to understand the benefits of wireless data access.
Last year when I visited friends (who, of course, are mostly geeks like me), I was only able to surf the Web or check e-mail using my PC or PocketPC in one out of every 10 homes. Now I can do it in almost every home. The number of homes that now uses the combination of cable modems or DSL and a wireless 802.11b (a.k.a. Wi-Fi) gateway is growing exponentially in the top 50 metropolitan markets.
Retail businesses and hospitality firms are beginning to recognize the value of providing wireless Internet access. Last year, it was a novelty and a differentiator. Now it’s becoming a checklist item. Before traveling to any new city, I look for two things: a hotel that provides at least high-speed access (and, preferably, wireless access) and Starbucks locations nearby. Why Starbucks? Well not only do I enjoy a good $5 cup of coffee, but Starbucks in most major metropolitan areas are wired for Wi-Fi access using a network provided by TMobile. This same network is available in many hotels and airports, giving me a single billing entity through which I can consume network access time at thousands of locations.
Whose airtime will I be using?
The desire for high-speed network access hasn’t been lost on the cell phone companies. When I purchased my most recent cellular phone from Sprint, I signed up for a plan that allowed me to use unlimited airtime and megabytes as part of my plan. I didn’t do it so that I could look at tiny mail messages and 8-bit pictures on my cell phone screen. I purchased a cable and software (from a third party) that makes my Samsung phone appear like an external modem through the USB port on my PC. When connected to the Sprint network in a city that supports its 1x network, I get a 230K connection and throughput of about 180K. Although it's not as fast as my cable modem and home wireless network, I can get a signal almost anywhere and work at a reasonable speed.
As high-speed networks are built out further over the next two years, CIOs should begin to expect and plan for 200K to 500K connections for any remote device including PCs, PocketPCs, and other specialty handheld devices. This is sufficient bandwidth to stream not just data, but also sound and video for smaller screens.
But don’t assume that your only access will be through a wireless phone, PC Card, or other device connected to a 1x cellular backbone. The desire for wireless phone access hasn’t been lost on the 802.11b hardware vendors and carriers either. For years, companies have been searching for the killer application for IP telephony. Although it’s been tough to justify in organizations with significant investment in telephone cabling infrastructure, the value proposition changes when the need for voice communications can be met by the wireless LAN infrastructure. For example, Cisco—arguably the leader in IP telephony—recently introduced a new IP phone that runs on 802.11b-based wireless LANs. The Wireless IP Phone 7290 works with Cisco’s Aironet line of access points and its Call Manager software and has a range of 500 to 1000 feet. This is the first of what I expect to be many devices designed to carry voice traffic over 802.11b networks. Although not yet as pervasive as cellular towers, 802.11b networks are becoming more commonplace (Gartner predicts that there will be over 24,000 public Wi-Fi networks by the end of the year).
The biggest issue remaining is to resolve who you'll pay for access time, but I expect mega billing services like TMobile to sign network access agreements with smaller carriers to provide single points of billing.
It's too early to pick a winner
The battle for corporate connectivity dollars will continue to escalate as hardware vendors create new products that consume both types of networks (Wi-Fi and cellular). Also, connectivity vendors will provide different packaging options to take advantage of the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses of Wi-Fi and cellular technology.
In the near term, companies should focus on providing cellular solutions for their mobile employees who need anytime access. But for most of us, availability of Wi-Fi hotspots is sufficient to provide high-speed, remote Internet access without using cellular technology. CIOs who develop a forward-looking strategy now have an opportunity to provide unique connectivity solutions for their companies while saving thousands of dollars by using the appropriate technology.