Whole cities are preparing to go wireless, with London and Manchester leading the way in the UK. The promise of wireless technology means remote workers can continue to be productive for the business away from the office and effectively hotdesk from a satellite office, train or cafe.
Behind the scenes a web of technologies is evolving to take the strain of increasing volumes of mobile data traffic. For the IT manager, it is becoming more important to support the latest standards and also to increase the security of users' computers as they travel.
In October 2006, most of the City of London went live with a wireless Wi-Fi network that gave workers and visitors access to the internet in the streets and open spaces across the Square Mile. Wi-Fi network operator The Cloud installed the network for the City of London. This follows the successful implementation of Wi-Fi access points across London's Canary Wharf.
The Cloud carried out a similar operation in Manchester in July 2006, making Manchester the first of many cities to have a city-centre broadband wireless network.
The Manchester network allows users in the city centre to access the internet using Wi-Fi-enabled devices.
The London and Manchester networks are run partly by The Cloud and partly by BT.
Separately, BT signed deals with 12 councils to give a dozen UK cities widespread Wi-Fi coverage. BT will fit Wi-Fi antennae in the streets to create zones where people can get wireless access to the internet. BT aims to have the first six cities live this year.
The Cloud has a flat rate package of unlimited internet access for £11.99 a month, or a range of pay-as-you-go deals. Users can also access the wireless network via other suppliers that rent out The Cloud's network. These service providers include BT Openzone, O2, SkypeZones, Vonage, iPass and Nintendo Wi-Fi.
Users require a Wi-Fi-equipped laptop, PDA, handheld games console, or mobile phone to access the service, and they may need to pay the individual service providers for time on their networks.
Bobby Sarin, chief operating officer at The Cloud, says, "Businesses can use wireless broadband to work more efficiently, local government workers can stay in touch with their office via handheld devices, and the general public can surf the web, play Nintendo games and make low-cost calls internationally over the internet."
The Manchester City Centre project will be followed by Birmingham, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham and Oxford, along with the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Camden and Islington.
As well as The Cloud's wireless broadband service, Manchester also has a city-wide broadband wireless IP network that is based on £10m of networking equipment from Atlantic Telecom.
This equipment has been acquired and upgraded by Manchester Metronet to enable services such as wireless CCTV and disaster recovery to private and public sector organisations.
Manchester Metronet's network offers speeds of up to 200mbps. One of the service's first users is Community Security, which provides around-the-clock monitoring services for property owners and schools. It is using the Metronet service for high-quality wireless CCTV.
The Manchester Metronet service has 13 secure radio points on top of high-rise buildings, which provide coverage to users within the M60 ring road. The points of presence are linked using a fault-tolerant fibre optic ring, so network traffic can be rerouted in an emergency.
Users of the service become part of a wireless local loop, which is delivered via a carrier-grade radio link. Users can access the broadband radio link by installing a small radio on the exterior of their building, which is cabled to their IT department or monitoring room. Manchester Metronet worked with Manchester City Council, NCP and Greater Manchester Police to deliver the service.
Michael Hulme, a professor at Lancaster University's Institute of Advanced Studies, says the benefits of municipal wireless broadband for businesses and home workers will be huge. One of the main benefits will be that workers will gain mobile internet access with powerful search facilities.
"There will be relatively seamless connections to business enterprise systems from quite small devices, with fast pipes both ways, and heavy opportunities for data manipulation and business intelligence," he says.
Hulme adds that wireless broadband will also enable extensive use of videoconferencing to allow mobile workers to have a presence in meetings and also to help cut transport costs.
"The extended wireless network is very powerful because it can shift a lot of data and run rich video," he says.
Wireless broadband will enable users to store large amounts of data remotely and potentially use their homes as data storage nodes. "My mobile device will be uploading and synchronising data, and this will give systems greater redundancy and make them less vulnerable to terrorist attack," says Hulme.
Along with mobile access to the internet and business applications, wireless mobile broadband brings a blurring of the working day, says Hulme. This will allow employees to work more flexible hours, which could improve their work/life balance.
In the future, all businesses will have to support mobile wireless users, says Hulme. "If you are not playing in wireless, you are probably not going to be playing. Mobility is part of modern social behaviour. Those who do it are getting competitive advantage now. They are getting the information where they want it," he says.
Ian Keene, vice-president at analyst firm Gartner, says the future for wireless cities and towns is looking good, with most UK cities and towns planning to support wireless services in 2007 and 2008.
But he says the main business challenge of public wireless hotspots is their lack of security. "Wireless hotspots are the hardest things to secure. For corporate users, businesses have to have a wireless local area network policy in place, and articulate it for use in the office, home and at hotspots," he says.
Such a policy should involve first using a virtual private network that can separate corporate data traffic from public traffic.
Second, roaming employees should use recognised hotspots run by service providers, and not just wander the streets and link into any open wireless network they find. However, Keene adds that the likelihood of a user's machine getting hacked while in a coffee shop is very slim.
Third, businesses cannot use encryption technologies such as Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) because public networks are open by nature and rely on users not sending encrypted traffic, says Keene.
The wireless technology itself is still largely untried, he adds. Problems include not having sufficiently high coverage across the cities, mainly because European cities do not follow a grid formation.
In addition, the maximum output power of UK Wi-Fi equipment is a tenth of the power allowed in the US, and this could hinder implementations.
Wi-Fi is also unlicensed, so anyone can set up an access point. However, the quality of service cannot be guaranteed, nor can there be any service level agreements because the service provider cannot control the interference levels.
It is still unclear whether Wi-Fi will be any good for carrying large volumes of voice traffic, in which case users may opt to stick with their 3G mobile phones.
Despite these issues, wireless cities are destined to be a success, says Keene. "Wi-Fi is on a huge percentage of laptops and PCs, and we are starting to see dual mode mobile and Wi-Fi handsets. In addition, more than 30% of broadband homes in the UK now have Wi-Fi," he says.
Wireless broadband technologies
Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology underlies a wireless local area network (WLan) and is based on the IEEE 802.11 family of specifications.
It can be used by a person with a Wi-Fi-enabled device, such as a laptop, mobile phone or PDA to connect to the internet when in the proximity of an access point.
The region covered by one or several access points is called a hotspot. This can range from a single room to many square miles of overlapping hotspots.
High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) is a mobile phone technology and an evolution of 3G.
It allows mobile phones to send data at higher data transfer speeds than before, so that mobile users can access rich content from their phones and PDAs.
Dual-mode 3G and Wi-Fi phones are available, and software can hand over data traffic between the two wireless systems. In future wireless cities, Wi-Fi, Wimax and HSDPA are all likely to be used alongside each other.
Wimax refers to the IEEE 802.16 wireless network standard, just as Wi-Fi refers to IEEE 802.11.
Wimax is very different from Wi-Fi in the way it works, but it can be a complementary technology, particularly if it is used in a mesh network, as the channel that links up Wi-Fi access points.
Many towns and cities are interested in implementing Wimax technology because it costs less to operate than Wi-Fi.
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This was first published in February 2007