"Wireless has been a godsend in the manufacturing, warehousing and logistic industries, where some of the spaces used to store stock and so on are as big as several football pitches," says Richard Webb from Infonetics Research.
"Access to a wireless network has freed up employees in these sectors, who can now roam free with a handheld gadget," he says.
For an office environment, he says companies may consider a wireless network where installing a fixed network is impossible because of the design of the building, or because the building is listed and no redesigns are allowed.
Wireless networks also offer flexibility with IT spending, Webb says. "It's not a sunk investment. If you move to a bigger office space, you can just dismantle the access points and take them with you. Compared with a fixed network, it is easy to deploy and redeploy."
By the end of 2001, Webb says only 12% of UK companies had deployed a wireless network. In many cases this is probably a pilot project in the form of an extension to an established, fixed-line network. But the technology has started to become more robust since the introduction of the 802.11a specification several years back.
This allows a throughput of 54 megabits per second (mbps) compared with the more established 802.11b standard, which allows 11mbps. An Infonetics survey of 1,200 UK IT directors found that 43% plan to have a WLan in place by 2006.
"With the emergence of the 802.11a standard, we are getting to the performance of a fixed-line network," says Webb. "This is a serious technology that can deliver business benefits and allow users to download files from the Internet, use e-mail and access corporate networks.
He says we are also starting to see suppliers offer integrated products, whereby 802.11b and 802.11a antennae can be used on the same base station. "This will lower the cost of entry for users who want to adopt the 802.11a standard. There is more and more competition in this space, and this again will bring the price down to a level that is realistic for IT directors to consider," he says.
Accusations of lax security have plagued suppliers of wireless networks. IT directors are asking, "Where does our network end? How do we stop outsiders hacking into our system?"
Webb says that existing technologies, such as encryption, personal firewalls and virtual private networks, can all be brought to bear on a wireless network.
But there are other solutions, he says. "There are some suppliers, that have a specialist vertical focus, tailoring their wireless solutions to suit industries that require a high level of security. Financial services companies that have very sensitive data on their corporate network, or hospitals that are starting to use wireless networks so doctors can access patients' records from the bedside - these are the industries leading the way in wireless network security."
Users gain freedom to roam through hotspots
Webb says we are seeing the emergence of companies, such as US-based Boingo, that specialise in striking intermediate agreements between wireless network providers to enable users to roam from one hotspot to another, in much the same way that GSM mobile phone users can employ the cells of the various providers such as Orange and T-mobile. "This will make things much more convenient for the user - as the user will have to sign only one agreement."
With wireless networks now delivering 54 megabits per second in anger, and users able to roam, Webb suggests WLan technology may turn out to be a serious competitor to 3G.
"In urban hotspot areas, WLan technology occupies the same space as 3G," says Webb. "And while 3G providers have stalled in rolling out their services, wireless has snuck in. It could be the two technologies may be complementary - but people don't care what the technology is as long as they are getting a service that gives them what they want."
We are starting to see wireless being used everywhere, in warehouses, offices and at home. The boundaries are blurring. If you project this process far enough - and it is a long way off - you can see the potential.