Wide-area wireless broadband targets Wi-Fi

Sensing an opportunity and a challenge, wide-area mobile broadband service providers and equipment makers are positioning their wireless data technologies as an alternative to Wi-Fi hot spots, with the promise to users of wider coverage and lower cost.

Though Wi-Fi technology has limits it has spurred general interest in wireless connectivity and spawned a growing population of multitasking laptop users who can be seen in cafes, airports, and hotels around the world, sipping coffee, having business discussions and using some downtime to catch up on e-mail. But now that Wi-Fi has piqued user interest in wireless connectivity, it may provide opportunities for alternatives.

"If consumers are given a choice between a service for which they have to find the nearest point, and a service that is everywhere, we think the everywhere service will win every time," said Chris Gilbert, chief executive officer of IPWireless Inc. in San Bruno, California. IPWireless sells equipment for mobile broadband services, built around a packet data implementation of UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System). "The best analogy I have heard is to pay phones versus cell phones."

Wi-Fi was designed as a local area technology and is not equipped to cover wide areas, support mobility, or scale as a carrier- grade network, according to Gilbert. "In urban areas Wi-Fi covers a few hundred feet, while IPWireless covers about two and a half miles," Gilbert said.

The largest cost with Wi-Fi is not upfront capital expenditure but the ongoing operating expenditure to backhaul all the access points, according to Gilbert.

Wi-Fi operators have to set up more access points to match broadband wireless coverage, and incur large backhaul costs since each access point has to be connected to T1 or DSL (digital subscriber loop) lines. To break even, then, Wi-Fi operators have to generate more revenue from each user than do operators of wide-area, mobile broadband technologies, he said.

Now, IPWireless' technology is getting a boost as service providers in New Zealand, Germany, Malaysia, and the U.S. have announced plans to deploy networks using its products. Other equipment makers for wide-area mobile broadband include New Jersey-based Flarion Technologies Inc., Navini Networks Inc. in Richardson, Texas, ArrayComm Inc. in San Jose, California, and Broadstorm Inc. in Bellevue, Washington.

"The benefit of these (wide-area mobile broadband) technologies over Wi-Fi is that you do not have to hunt for a hot spot, and you can get service where there is not a hot spot," said Tole Hart, principal analyst for mobile and wireless at Stamford, Connecticut-based research firm, Gartner Inc.

While it is true that the burgeoning number of Wi-Fi hot spots may reduce the relative advantage wide-area services, the wide-area technology can offer mobile voice and push-to-talk that will not be possible with Wi-Fi, according to Hart. Push-to-talk is a walkie-talkie kind of feature that creates an instant connection between cell phones, removing the need to dial a number or wait for a network connection.

Though speeds can be faster with Wi-Fi depending on the number of people in the network, it may not show up to the end user due to other bottlenecks in the network, Hart added.

Vendors of wide-area wireless technology that competes with UMTS are also jumping into the act.

For example, Qualcomm Inc., is positioning its CDMA (code division multiple access) technology as a wide-area alternative to Wi-Fi. While its CDMA2000 1X technology supports both voice and data services over a standard (1X) CDMA channel, Qualcomm in San Diego, California, has also introduced a data-optimized version of CDMA 2000, called 1xEV-DO (evolution data only) for fast data transfer comparable to cable modems and DSL connections.

Qualcomm's pitch is that without regional or national coverage and limited hot spot availability, Wi-Fi falls short of providing a true enterprise mobility solution. With ubiquitous coverage, 3G (third-generation) CDMA helps users stay connected to their offices, without having to worry whether they are covered by Wi-Fi.

"CDMA and Wi-Fi are two different technologies," said Hart. "CDMA 1x EV-DO can be an alternative to Wi-Fi, provided coverage is good. With Wi-Fi you know you are going to get good bandwidth, and you just have to find the right hot spot." Qualcomm's other technology, CDMA 1X, is too slow to be a good alternative to Wi-Fi, according to Hart.

Although mobile broadband wireless has some technical advantages over Wi-Fi, the ground realities are quite different, particularly with Intel Corp. throwing its weight behind Wi-Fi with an eye to selling more of its Wi-Fi enabled Centrino processors and chipsets, according to analysts.

Intel's aggressive push of Centrino on the client side and the emergence of wireless switching on the infrastructure side are the two major forces transforming the business Wi-Fi market in 2003, according to In-Stat/MDR, a technology market research firm in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Wireless switching architectures shift the management, configuration, and security functions of a Wi-Fi network from the access points (APs) upstream to a centralized switch. About 16 million notebook PCs with embedded Wi-Fi will ship to businesses this year, and by 2005, Wi-Fi will be included in 95 percent of notebooks as a standard feature, according to In-Stat/MDR.

However, the growing acceptance of Wi-Fi may be a good situation for all types of wireless technologies. Intel's strong backing for Wi-Fi is expected to help boost acceptance of broadband wireless services in general, according to Gilbert.

"We believe that Intel's huge push behind Wi-Fi is probably the best thing that could happen for IPWireless," added Gilbert. "The more that users are enticed to buy laptops and look to start using their laptops outside the office, the more they will want a true wide area mobile solution."

For now, however, wide-area mobile broadband service providers have to accommodate Wi-Fi users in their deployments.

"We see Wi-Fi as an important complementary technology in the LAN (local area network) market," said Bob Smith, chief executive officer of Walker Wireless Ltd. in Auckland, which is using IPWireless' technology to set up a wireless broadband network across New Zealand over the next three years.

"We are looking to integrate Wi-Fi into the local hub so in that instance customers would locally be connected to the hub by a Wi-Fi connection and IPWireless would be the wide area connection from a fixed point."

Down the line, Walker Wireless is looking at having one PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) card that would have roaming between 802.11 and IPWireless on the card, according to Smith.

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