Wireless local area networks (WLans) are fast becoming part of the UK communication landscape, driven by home workers and small businesses. Plummeting prices of wireless access and relative ease of installation have encouraged small firms, unencumbered by existing infrastructures, to give wireless networking
According to Agilent Technologies, 40%
of UK small businesses, representing 1.58 million companies, will be using WLans in the office within the next two years.
Retailers are reporting a record growth in sales of WLans to small businesses, thanks to attractive prices. A wireless access point cost £250 last year, but this year it is down to £120.
Adoption has also been driven by the fact that 90% of laptops sold have Centrino technology and are wireless-ready, says Mike Dowling, SME networking product manager at IT supplier WStore.
According to Dowling, mobile voice take-up was fuelled by the personal user and data appears to be going the same way. "People who have implemented wireless at home now want to try it out in the business. They bought it initially because they did not want to be tucked away in the study while they were surfing or looking at e-mail" he says.
Flexibility is wireless networking's biggest driver, says Neil Louw, chief technology officer at Dimension Data. "Workers can go to a meeting room and stay online," he says. "It is especially desirable for customer-facing activity."
As well as extending the fixed Lan via a hotspot, the other aspect proving popular is having contingency bandwidth should the network fail or be insufficient. "Wireless is a good way of providing redundancy if you have to expand quickly," says Louw.
For businesses starting from scratch in a greenfield site or occupying a building that is listed or unusual, wireless is an obvious choice. But it is important to be clear about the cost at the outset, says Louw. In a building where there is cabling to the desktop, there is no immediate cost saving, although in the long term wireless has the big advantages of flexibility and zero maintenance. If you want to change your office layout, you do not have to re-cable.
But before getting carried away with the prospect of a cable-free office it is worth remembering that in most offices telephones are still wired to the desktop. Voice over fixed IP is entering the mainstream but voice over wireless is a different story. For a start there is no quality of service built into wireless standards and voice is intolerant of delay or interference. The industry is keen to talk up voice over wireless as an inevitable outcome although it is reluctant to give a timeframe for its arrival. "A few pockets of technology-led companies in the UK are piloting it," says Ian Reading, wireless marketing manager at Agilent Technologies.
Retailers confirm that plenty of customers ask for voice over wireless mobile. When it does arrive SMEs are likely to be at the vanguard once again simply because they are less likely to max out the bandwidth.
"Customers ask about voice over wireless and it will arrive quite soon," says Dowling. "SMEs have less data flying around and so it does not affect quality of service so much."
In the meantime, suppliers have got their act together to make wireless data technology as out-of-the-box and accessible as possible.
"In the 1990s it was a knife-and-fork system design for proprietary wireless networks and software applications," says Mike Short, chairman of the Mobile Data Association. "We have seen significant changes from the techie-led approach to the black-box approach."
However, ease of installation encourages sloppy practice, particularly when it comes to security, say the wireless watchers. "How many of us switch on our laptops and find ourselves connected to the neighbour's network?," says Jeremy Green, principal of mobility enterprise at analyst firm Ovum. It is bad enough when it happens at home but in the business it is unforgivable, although all too common, he adds.
Media agency Bluhalo is typical of many new wireless users which discover their bandwidth is initially being shared by a neighbouring business. Business development manager Vimal Patel configured the wireless access point to enable the firewall and encryption but did not find the process straightforward. "The online help let it down at this stage," he says.
Security is the stumbling block for many small businesses, says Marc Gadsdon, director of network hosting firm In-Tuition. He often arrives at a customer site to do some form of integration or optimisation and finds the network is completely open. Firms that want to do anything that is not on the instructions, such as creating several secure domains within a wireless-enabled hotspot, also struggle, he says.
The speed of development in the wireless arena makes procurement confusing. The Ethernet wireless standard 802.11 comes in a variety of flavours but basically it is a trade-off between speed and distance, according to Louw. Most people plump for 802.11b or the more recent 802.11g, which is backwards-
compatible and faster. But the even higher frequency 802.11a - once reserved for government use - is becoming more common.
Although domestic and business users are acquiring a taste for running office applications in local hotspots, this experience has not yet been replicated in the wider world. Cellular networks have not provided sufficient or seamless bandwidth to support broadband to the laptop or applications beyond e-mail.
The 3G upgrade from 22kbps to 128kbps has yet to encourage swathes of people to do office applications on the move. Suppliers started selling 3G datacards and rolling out their networks last year but uptake has been slow. As Clive Richardson, product development manager at Orange, puts it, "The world is not storming for 3G."
According to Ovum, the high price of datacards is inhibiting take-up, and this is compounded by the high cost of transmitting data files that were designed for a Lan. "There is an enormous overhead of data that is, strictly speaking, irrelevant but serves to keep an application synchronised and looking clean," says Ovum senior telecoms analyst Neale Andersen in his report, 3G datacards: the price is too high.
This is where the Blackberry scores points because it strips all superfluous data from an e-mail or client server application and delivers uncluttered packets over GPRS. The XDA, an integrated phone and GPRS device, has been similarly successful and offers businesses a way to experiment with firing small amounts of data around the network. It is now standard kit for mobile workers involved in process jobs, such as couriers and utilities staff.
GPRS has proved workable and cheap for field workers who want to send in discrete orders or transactions that can be transmitted in very small packets.
But the business laptop users are wallflowers at the mobile data party. "There is just a small minority of people who do data roaming," says Green. "It is the biggest cost on the horizon. Mobile is 50% of the telecoms bill and roaming is 80% of the mobile bill."
This view is confirmed by the business model of Martek Marine, a global engineering support consultancy that relies on teleworking to be competitive. According to managing director Paul Luen, using "dead time" on planes, trains and in hotels has enabled his consultants to be twice as productive as the industry benchmark for the sector.
So far he has spurned 3G. "If you log onto Wi-Fi and pay a fixed price and compare it with what you would pay for datacards, it is an awful lot more," he says. He also finds the coverage of 3G insufficient and he does not trust it to handle the large graphics files attached to half the e-mails sent within the business.
Intriguingly, at the point at which 3G is being rolled out, GPRS sales are increasing, according to Richardson. "It is a tried technology and the procurer within large organisations is now happy that is proven," he says.
Early problems of patchy coverage and dropped packets have been ironed out by suppliers which have rolled out a full service and are prepared to dedicate channels for GPRS. Similarly, software developers have got smarter at developing skinny applications with connectionless protocols and using the meagre 22kbps bandwidth.
Although small businesses are proving pickier in their choice of wireless technology than suppliers had hoped for, Short is upbeat. "I would be kidding if I said that SMEs use mobile mostly for data but the ubiquity of the handset makes it an obvious choice," he says. For example, it is fairly easy for an engineer to download a picture of a spare part, and large-screen phones can show pictures to engineers to help them solve problems, he says.
Wireless data makes life easier, when it works. But as Green says, "When all is said and done, putting in a radio network means managing capacity, coverage and interference."
Choosing a wireless networking product
Tony Fish, chief executive at wireless advisory firm AMF Ventures, warns against buying wireless products simply because they are cheap. He offers the following tips:
Work out your requirements and then map the technology onto this spec. Among field workers there are big difference between salespeople's and engineers' needs, for example.
Handset and PDA specifications change fast. Make sure you pick a device that is compatible with your software. New releases by suppliers are frequently buggy and often not backwards compatible.
If you are looking at cellular, choose the best service for where you're operating.
Do not be tempted to run large integrated corporate software suites over wireless. They are seldom written with wireless in mind and are very "chatty" applications. "All-in-ones are a disaster for wireless," says Fish.
Wireless networking at a glance
Ultra wide band
Designed for short-range wireless personal area networks, UWB is used to relay data from a host device to another device up to 10 metres away. UWB is defined as any radio technology having a spectrum that occupies a bandwidth greater than 20% of the centre frequency, or a bandwidth of at least 500MHz.
Wireless local area networks have a broader range than wireless personal area networks and are typically confined within office buildings, restaurants, shops and homes. The base standard, 802.11, defined in 1997, allowed data transmission of up to 2 megabits per second. Over time, this standard has been enhanced. These enhancements are recognised by the addition of a letter to the original 802.11 standard, including 802.11a and 802.11b. Wireless metropolitan area networks cover a much greater distance than WLans, connecting buildings over a broader geographic area. The emerging WiMax technology (802.16d today and 802.16e in the near future) will further enable mobility and reduce reliance on wired connections.
Wireless wide area networks are the broadest range wireless networks and are deployed most widely in the cellular voice infrastructure. They
can also transmit data.