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Wireless and WiFi: From Confusion and Competition to Possible Synergy

Steve Nicolle, CEO of Tatara Systems, a company focused on the convergence of cellular services and wireless Ethernet (WiFi) once overheard a CTO of an unnamed wireless carrier say of WiFi, "If I could squash it, I would." Things are moving quickly in the wireless communications industry, and confused consumers are having trouble keeping up with the torrid pace. A clear understanding of the major communication denominations is definitely needed. What the average consumer thinks of as "cell service" is more broadly termed "wireless" (not to be confused with "cordless," as in cordless phones, and definitely not to be confused with WiFi or 802.11)—three commonly used "wire-free" communications methods based on three different technologies—confusion right off the bat.

Many wireless carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon (once known as New England Telephone), have been around since the days of the Bell network, huge long-distance phone bills, and POTS (plain old telephone service). Others such as Sprint are relative newcomers. Carriers actually "carry" voice and data over long distances and comprise the Internet backbones (appropriate given their wireline history and the Internet’s continuing dependence on wired communications). Carriers owned what was once known as the "Iron Triangle"—the phones, the network, and the support services—a comfortable situation that is now limiting broader user adoption. The Iron Triangle carriers hold the keys to introducing new cell-based applications that we believe would attract even more users. However, they have tended to lock out the smaller more aggressive players offering more advanced and creative applications. Fortunately, times are changing.

"Wireless Ethernet (WiFi, or often called 802.11) put a wedge in that triangle," explains Nicolle. "Wireless Ethernet devices are made by typical computer communication companies such as Cisco. All was well when WiFi was an in-office–only technology because the cellular wireless carriers never serviced that computer end user. This is now all changing as a result of cell phones that have data services making them more computer-like and computers having cell capabilities making them far more portable." The confusion and competition begins.

The cellular wireless carriers have had to upgrade their communications technologies to better deal with data. (For example, voice traffic places less demand on a network for communications bandwidth than data.) Early cell-data services offered approximately 64 kbps (kilobits per second) connections to the network, not too unlike the old 56 kbps dialup modems of the early Internet days. However, you got 64 kbps if no one else was using the wireless service at the same time. Bandwidth is shared among all active users in a particular cell zone, so actual data communication rates could be closer to 1 kbps—nearly impractical for any serious data use.

The cellular services carriers are not sitting idly by, however. New technology is being rolled out now that greatly increases data communications rates. Not one, but two entirely different and competing high-bandwidth wireless communications technologies are now in use: Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). CDMA is more prevalent in the United States and is carried by Verizon and Sprint. Although GSM’s penetration of the U.S. market is reasonably large (by virtue of the fact that it is carried by AT&T and Cingular), it is virtually the only technology outside of the United States.

Unfortunately, the technologies are incompatible. Proponents of either standard push roadmaps along that reflect parallel visions, yet never is convergence of the two competing standards foreseen. This echoes the early days of local-area network (LAN) data communications, which began with three LAN technologies (Token Ring, Ethernet, and AppleTalk). However, the marketplace eventually settled on Ethernet. So now, all computers that use wireless Ethernet are derived from one family, 802.11, where one finds a more or less smooth path of technological advancement waiting ahead.

The cellular wireless carriers are heading toward a new generation of technology known as 3G (third generation), which will boost wireless data speeds into the multimegabit per second range and higher—still shared among many other members of a cell site that could be physically large compared to a section of an office building or home. Although the cellular carriers might fantasize about 3G’s potential as being the communication technology to the end point, that is likely too impractical of a scenario.

Too often, wireless-enabled laptop computers (and other endpoint devices) will be useable within distance of WiFi access points that will offer data rates that are far in excess of what can be experienced by sharing a 3G connection with potentially hundreds of other users. Because users will always clamor for the higher speed and will only tolerate lower speeds as a last resort (such as at the beach, on a mountain, or on the highway), we will probably see a combination of wireless communications standards going forward. "The cellular wireless carriers are finally embracing the notion of working with the WiFi camps because it is now the same end-point customer," explains Nicolle. One of net effects of the Inescapable Data world is that the business user and the citizen share the same technology needs. "Furthermore, the carriers have a critical piece—the backbone infrastructure. Wireless Ethernet still has to ultimately hit the Internet and that ‘backhaul’ interface is expensive."

In the end, we as consumers will win. In the meantime, there is confusion over what standards we should adopt and some spotty service. The Blackberry, for example, uses cellular, and although it is somewhat slow for Internet surfing, connectivity is ubiquitously available no matter where one is, and the data rates are perfectly practical for e-mail and text messaging. Laptop computers with nearly gigabit WiFi work fine in key locations such as at home or in the office (or even better, in the home office); in fringe locations such as campgrounds or airports, however, one can be forced to pay separately for access via some other service provider or have no access at all. Although wireless communication may seem more or less pervasive, connectivity is not yet ever-present—a temporary barrier to an absolute Inescapable Data world and wide-scale connectivity for us all.

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