Why go wireless?

Evolving mobile standards and applications are delivering real business benefits to users as barriers to adoption continue to...

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Eight out of 10 global users say that mobile computing will have an impact on their businesses in the next five years, with half expecting that impact to be significant, according to a survey of 309 global senior executives by the Economist Intelligence Unit.




The standards and technologies may still be emerging, but early adopters report that mobile computing is already significantly improving productivity and virtual team collaboration, thanks to its support for flexible and remote working.

There is also evidence that mobile computing is reducing infrastructure and operational costs. Meanwhile, the likes of FedEx, Lufthansa and Sears, Roebuck are investing in wireless products to offer value-added services to customers. This is the experience of the few pioneers in enterprise-wide wireless deployment, according to the EIU research.

But most companies remain to be convinced about betting their businesses on Wi-Fi and have stuck with trial systems for a few employees. Only 18% of just over 300 global firms surveyed by the EIU have gone the whole hog. The others are wary of issues such as the security and cost and question the maturity of the underlying technologies.

New security threats to networks are constantly emerging, raising the spectre of systems that are inherently unstable or vulnerable to attack. Cost has traditionally been a barrier to the deployment of mobile computing. However, prices for wireless Lan equipment are falling steadily - by about 25% in 2003 - making a mobile applications strategy increasingly attractive.

Most companies are upbeat about future investment in mobile technologies, particularly wireless Lans. Research by InfoTech reveals that users will be spending $1.3bn (£72.9m) by 2008 on wireless Lans, compared with only $550m two years ago. This is because they are drawn by its ability to make mobile workers more efficient and productive. But while these benefits are significant, they tend to obscure the real potential of wireless technology to enable new applications and processes that can dramatically transform companies.

Today's common wireless data applications include e-mail, and access to the web, spreadsheets and word processing documents. Research among Blackberry users undertaken by Research in Motion and Ipsos Reid found that the average user regains about 53 minutes a day by being able to manage their e-mail while on the move. However, even greater business benefits are likely to come from future wireless data applications, according to a recent study by research firm In-Stat/MDR.

Avaya, Motorola and Proxim are working together to converge mobile (GSM/3G) phones with a Wi-Fi, IP softphone PDA. This will provide users with access to their business extensions and applications such as their calendars and instant messaging. "Within three to four years, virtually all application environments will incorporate mobility as an embedded function," says David Yockelson, an analyst with research firm, Meta Group.

There is also a growing demand for managed services, such as fixed-line remote access services and network management, but only a moderate interest in wireless voice over IP applications.

Given all the business opportunities that mobile technologies can offer, analysts recommend users should not wait until the standards debate is concluded, since the component nature of a mobile strategy offers business benefits at every level. Wireless technologies in any form reduce the "deadtime" for travelling employees.

"There are benefits to be gained from using today's standards as point solutions," says Mark Blowers, senior research analyst at Butler Group.

"If you've got an office area where you could deploy a wireless Lan then do it, because it will give you flexibility and allow your people to be productive on the move. Use today's mobile technologies as a stepping stone to move forward," he says. For suppliers and users alike, the ultimate aim is to merge all mobile technologies seamlessly together.

The latest standard evolutions are significant, not least because they show that suppliers of wireless Lan technologies are pushing their products into the traditional area of the wireless Wan, adapting them to cover larger areas than before, for example community-based networking and hotspots.

"There are huge challenges in terms of coverage, speed, cost and applicability because these technologies were designed to be used in smaller areas," says Angelo Lamme, international product manager at 3Com. "Which technologies win will depend on the tariffs and the billing schemes suppliers set up. The good news for users is that mobile operators have started to offer a flat fee for their services regardless of whether you use a GSM, GPRS or UMTS network, or even their hotspots, so usage becomes seamless for the user."

This has implications for the future adoption of 3G networks. Meta Group research predicts that flat fees, enterprise-class handset availability, broader coverage and improved roaming will drive the start of enterprise adoption of 3G mobile networks in the EMEA region during the last part of 2004.

Standards on the march

Business efficiencies and agility can result from any deployment of wireless technology; personal area networks; infrared and Bluetooth (low power, short range); wireless Lan 802.11 (medium power, medium range); or wireless Wan - 2G GSM, 2.5G GPRS and 3G UMTS (high power, long range).

Wireless standards keep evolving, with new ones refining and extending the old - most notably for 802.11a. The 802.11a wireless Ethernet standard has evolved in many directions since its development in 2001, most recently to cover wireless security (802.11i), and personal area networks based on Bluetooth (802.15 or XDA).

The latest mutations of 802.11 are 802.16a/ 802.16e or Wi-Max, and 802.20. Wi-Max offers data rates on a par with most wired Ethernet networks over a range of about 30 miles, so it addresses metropolitan area networks. The initial WiMax standard, 802.16a, can transfer data at up to 70mbps using the 10GHz and 66GHz spectrums. The latest variation of WiMax, 802.16e, operates in 2-6GHz licensed bands, opening the door to mobile devices using the standard. With these users can deploy wireless Lans using a single protocol for site-to-site as well as site-to-user delivery.

The 802.20 standard addresses the 1mbps wireless metropolitan area network over distances of up to 15km. The standard is intended for operation in licensed bands below 3.5GHz.

This article is part of Computer Weekly's Special Report on wireless mobility IT produced in association with Intel

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