IDC Channel Directions 2002: Wireless: no strings attached

IDC Channel Directions 2002: Wireless: no strings attached

As information workers, we face the productivity paradox every day: why do we do most of our work where we are least connected? In other words, why can't we recapture the productive time lost in transit, waiting for meetings to start, between events and in transient periods in hotels, airports, convention centres and restaurants? Mobile phones made this problem both easier and harder. These wonderful little gadgets simply and easily enabled us to stay in touch almost regardless of location - but we were unable to parallel the ubiquity of voice communications with access to the other resources we need to do our work. With the advent of the Internet and our new economy - shifting vast amounts of data not just around the country, but around the globe - we have found ourselves again wanting the ability to combine functionality and simplicity.

We yearn for the flexibility of "anytime, anywhere" communications that our trusty phones brought us, but with the added dimension of high-powered computing devices with more advanced analytical and input/output capabilities - devices like our laptops or PDAs. Why should we depend on SMS or WAP, when e-mail and HTML do the task for us already?

Like their landline brethren, mobile operators have latched onto these growing user demands - both communities have sought to provide an aggressive evolutionary path to provide both voice and data services. However, the crashing end of the dotcom era also engulfed the "dot-wap" community. Now, as both carriers and service providers search for the promised pot of gold at the end of the mobile rainbow, we consumers are left with disappointed expectations and frustration.

I'm not writing this article to repeat the well-worn story of the WAP collapse, but rather to discuss whether the evolutionary path of mobile data has taken a new turn. Delayed rollouts of 2.5G and 3G technologies, and the high relative cost of low value-added services on these networks in Australia, tell the tale familiar to us from the DSL rollout. Enterprises are becoming more and more wary of the promises made to them by IT&T service providers - and are nervous about increasing their dependency on third parties for more than required voice and Internet services. To be fair to the providers, the margins to be earned by supplanting circuit-switched voice with packetised data services are still risky and unclear.

Enter the alphabet soup of wireless LAN - 802.11x, WiFi, or whatever the nom du jour might be. This evolution of wired local area networking offers a wireless LAN-based solution to corporates, which can be offered internally and which also has the potential to answer some of the calls for simple, real-time application access. To entice businesses still further, the deployment of WLAN functionality requires only minimal investment, almost no changes to application architecture, and provides formats akin to those already in place. Standardised solutions from a variety of leading vendors - Cisco, Linksys, 3Com, Enterasys, D-Link, Avaya and others - are allowing fleet-footed entrepreneurs to seize opportunities to generate new revenues based on demands for Internet-centric applications by rolling out these services internally and externally.

Two technologies, once seen at opposite ends of the IT spectrum, are coming together with a bang - the promise of 3G mobile and the here and now of WiFi. Where should companies invest to resolve the paradox? Let us first review briefly how these technologies differ and, more importantly, how their functionality is still decisively separate.

As a top-level comparison, 2G, 2.5G and 3G mobile data can be paralleled with the speeds of first-generation, second-generation, and broadband modem technologies: 9.6Kbps, 30-40Kbps, and greater than 144Kbps, respectively. The devil, as always, is in the detail. Users that buy into these technologies will expect to have access to the promised speeds everywhere - and every time. Carriers have to invest in the expensive (because it's scarce) resource of bandwidth, with prices set high by governments eager to cash in on this natural asset. Australia's carriers escaped relatively lightly in their 3G auction, with the six bidders paying a total of just over $1 billion for licences, but there is still a significant cost both in acquiring the bandwidth and building the infrastructure to service it. The equation of high cost and uncertain return has led to a marked deceleration in these networks.

Meanwhile, WiFi has been cropping up like weeds. Startups and even hobbyists have begun to create "hotspot" connections, wirelessly connecting hotels, airport lounges, hotels and coffee shops to either attract subscribers onto what is virtually a new ISP service, or to generate revenues through enriching the services offered by these locations to their patrons. WiFi fits the capability to the need, bringing high-speed access at low cost to environments that will attract clusters of users.

This trend has not been lost on mobile suppliers. Nokia and IBM have just announced a partnership to develop and deploy public wireless LAN (PWLAN) solutions and Nokia is also involved in reducing the barriers between the technologies, for example with its recent announcement of a tri-mode PCMCIA card, which combines GPRS, WLAN and Bluetooth. This technological trend gets us one step closer to an untethered utopia where the device concentrates on the connection - and the user on what they want to do.

At present, the most often talked about issues holding this vision back are financial constraints (in the case of 3G), and security (for WLAN). So how can enterprises, integrators, and service providers supply each of these? No one company has all the answers; the mobile world is a world built on partnership. Firstly, there needs to be a high level of trust between the end user looking to enable mobile functionality - notably about the concerns over security - and the service provider. Secondly, the service provider will need the ongoing support of the vendor and developer community. The pattern for partnership will be one attuned to the more pragmatic atmosphere of the times: shared risk and carefully structured joint ventures.

In summary, we still remain at the crossroads. To our left the path is narrow, but nearly complete: a cost-effective offering of high-bandwidth services using WiFi. To our right is a half-built toll motorway, a ubiquitous solution for converged mobile voice and data networks. I venture to state that while these two roads currently seem to travel in different directions, convergence of end-user demands through enterprise partnerships with the channel, integrators, and service providers will bring them together. These partners will combine the best of both worlds to provide ready access to enterprise solutions, based on intelligent configurations using either network technology depending on the application.

Joel Martin is research director, infrastructure and communications, IDC Australia.

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