Wireless options abound: WiMAX, EV-DO, VoIP

The lack of next-generation wireless standards has created not only confusion, but also cutthroat competition and amazing opportunities for WiMAX, EV-DO, VoIP and more.

WiMax, EV-DO, MIMO, ZigBee and UMTS. It sounds like a spelling bee gone out of control, but these are just a sampling of the wireless technology options users have available to them these days. The wireless industry is going nuts as cellular and wireless LAN companies face off against one another over who's going to deliver the fastest, most reliable service for the least money. If you're trying to make a buying decision, it's a time of great confusion, but also great opportunity.

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That's because lots of exciting new options are emerging from cutthroat competition. They promise to drive the cost of voice calls even closer to zero and enable data access from almost any location. Now is a great time to save money and buy some flexibility while the standards mess sorts itself out.

Here are some next-generation wireless options for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that I think are worthy of your attention, even if the standards aren't yet fully baked:

VoIP over wireless: It's time to just do it; wireless infrastructure is now cheap and robust enough that SMBs should seriously think about moving their voice traffic to a wireless backbone. Not only are speeds blazingly fast (the emerging 802.11n standard is up to five times as fast as the 54Mbit 802.11g), but a clutch of standards is also emerging to make wireless LANs more manageable and reliable. The big companies will wait for the standards to be finalized, but why should you bother? You're smaller, faster and able to respond more quickly to changes in technology. Just make sure your suppliers offer free upgrades to the standards when they're finalized.

Hybrid handsets: The newest cellular handsets now support both cellular and Wi-Fi technologies. This is a great step forward for users because it enables them to switch seamlessly to the lowest-cost access method depending on what's available. When you're in the office, your phone is on Wi-Fi. Outside, it switches to cellular. The user never knows the difference. This option deserves your attention for any of your serious road warrior users. Wi-Fi calls are basically free, so using hybrid handsets can drastically reduce your cellular minutes. That gives you more options to consolidate your cell plans and save money. Load up on cheap Wi-Fi routers and save.

EV-DO: Have you ever suffered sticker shock when you check into a Sheraton and find that Internet access is going to run you $12 a day? Do your field reps play the Wi-Fi shuffle, walking blocks to find a Starbucks that will give them free Internet access in exchange for a double cappuccino? You don't need that aggravation. 1x Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO), a high-speed wireless Internet technology based on cellular network technology, offers sufficient bandwidth and coverage to make it a practical option for your road warriors. EV-DO isn't cheap and it isn't for everybody, but if you or your users travel more than five days a month and frequently work out of airports and hotel lobbies, it's a hassle-free alternative to scrounging for cheap Wi-Fi access.

WiMAX: Don't invest today, but be ready for a future in which WiMAX dominates the wide area network. The new 802.16e-2005 standard will establish WiMAX as a legitimate competitor to cellular services over long distances. The 802.16d spec, which has already been ratified, supports speeds of 1Mbps to 5Mbps. Early claims of 30-mile coverage are dubious, but it's reasonable to believe that Internet access providers will soon start to knit together WiMAX networks that can provide broadband performance over very wide coverage areas, which means users won't have to hunt for that local coffee shop. Keep an eye on this exciting standard, because it looks capable of living up to its somewhat inflated early promise.

Don't worry too much about picking the wrong horse in any of these areas. Cellular and wireless data companies will each support their entries for a long time to come. Meanwhile, you can move ahead with your campaign to cut voice costs and enable anytime, anywhere access to your network for your employees in the field. What have you got to lose?

Paul Gillin is a technology writer and consultant and former editor-in-chief of TechTarget. His Web site is www.gillin.com.

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