Businesses see uses for Wi-Fi connectivity

The return on investment case for wireless technology

Historically, Wi-Fi was seen simply as an unwired alternative to wired Ethernet local area networking, and there were serious doubts about its future. However, it has gained new momentum as a way of providing ubiquitous connectivity inside and outside the office with private and public access.

The areas that are now driving Wi-Fi uptake include private Wi-Fi for access to corporate services from employers; semi-public Wi-Fi for access to the internet, e-mail and VPN connectivity or guest access to corporate services; and public Wi-Fi, which provides connectivity in a public location to access corporate applications via VPN connections.

Organisations using Wi-Fi may choose several of these strategies. A train operator, for instance, may wish to provide Wi-Fi connectivity at a station for consumers. At the same time, it may want to sell multimedia services to waiting passengers or provide connectivity for its own employees for mobile ticket collection. It may also offer Wi-Fi connectivity for free to first-class travellers.

This could shorten the time to achieve return on investment from a typical three years, based on just one option, down to less than one year.

One example of this can be found in a system built around the Paris Metro stations between the Gare du Nord and the Porte d'Orleans which is managed by Capgemini. Connectivity is provided for the public in streets, bars and caf's and some buses now have Wi-Fi cameras attached to report cars that use bus lanes illegally.

An interesting observation is that users were typically downloading 28mbps per session, compared to the typical limit of 5mbps a month on GPRS.

Currently, Wi-Fi connectivity is limited to large buildings or campus environments that are difficult to fit with cable. There is no cost justification for replacing a wired infrastructure with Wi-Fi unless the cabling predates Cat3/5 wiring, as this has more than enough bandwidth to match Wi-Fi speeds.

The cost justification on a greenfield site is more complex, because Cat 5 cabling has the capability to run at 100mbps, whereas Wi-Fi struggles to match 10mbps. This may change with the introduction of Wi-Max and 802.16, which offers greater bandwidth. However, Wi-Max may well stall as Wi-Fi becomes widely deployed.

Other wireless standards will have a place, but they will be mostly limited to metropolitan wireless broadband connectivity in areas such as rural broadband services.

Public Wi-Fi is starting to penetrate the UK, with local government and public services keen to become involved. Adoption remains slow but is growing now Wi-Fi suppliers are starting to form common agreements. Some councils have Wi-Fi services, such as community website Digital Bristol, but these are still highly reliant on sponsorship.

Digital multimedia is another application that will drive demand for low-cost bandwidth, as currently 2.5G and 3G mobile services are proving too expensive. Digital Bristol has an interesting application where a radio play can be beamed via wireless into Queens Square in Bristol.

When considering a Wi-Fi environment, the main applications are internet browsing and e-mail access. This is closely followed by VPN/IPSec (private encrypted tunnel) connectivity from the device via the internet to the employer's home network and all its services, where the main application is e-mail.

All this could be set to change with the emergence of IP telephony, which could throw the mobile network providers into disarray. For example, Capgemini has a fully wireless campus in the Netherlands where an IP telephony trial has provided a 50% reduction in communication costs and a return on investment in less than 12 months. This has also been a proving ground where roaming between different IP environments and between Wi-Fi and UMTS (3G mobile) is now possible.

A common concern raised about Wi-Fi is the lack of security. However, the technology has in-built options to secure access and data that are often not activated by users. As a bare minimum, private Wi-Fi should be hiding the SSID identifier and have encryption enabled, but more than 60% of private Wi-Fi networks lack this very basic level of protection.

Wi-Fi has now gained all the necessary elements to make a desirable and successful service for providing internet, e-mail, corporate access and entertainment. The idea of being able to plug into the office wherever you are is attractive, particularly for businesses with a mobile workforce.

Although wireless outside of the office can only be found in hotspots, this is changing. The novelty of Wi-Fi means that the full scale of its potential is still being realised, but one thing is for sure, it is starting to be widely accepted as part of the future of business technology.

Jaye J Isherwood is mobile solutions product manager at Capgemini

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