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Mobile Strategies

Is it a wireless world yet?

By Dominic Giangrasso
December 1999, issue 31

Is it a wireless world yet? I ask this question in the light of both the wireless focus of this issue and my own personal and professional needs. Andy Seybold's wireless primer and the case studies will give you a good idea of where wireless stands. In this column I'll add my own observations-the good, bad and ugly.

In the vertical markets, companies are definitely ready to go wireless but many have a hard time understanding and integrating wireless into their existing enterprise technologies. That's too bad as mobile computers are getting smaller and less expensive, and they finally have acceptable battery life. What's the process behind a vertical market wireless project? Let's say your company has deployed mobile computers and management enjoys having timely access to information from the field. The new data allows them to adjust and fine-tune strategies in days rather than weeks. That's when someone will suggest that perhaps adding wireless data transfer would make access even faster and help the company serve their customers even better. The value of real-time data thus having been established, the company is ready to embark on the wireless experiment.

In consumer markets where the target users are businesspeople and the distribution chain runs from CompUSA to Staples, wireless is hot. Devices like the radio-equipped Palm VII have brought wireless communication to the masses. Now available nationwide, the VII uses the Mobitex network which operates at between 8,500 and 19,000 bps. At those speeds you couldn't surf the web very briskly but it's fast enough for email and limited web access. That's why the Palm's service uses a technology call "web clippings" that extracts text data from a growing number of websites.

Other wireless solutions for consumers include modems that use wide area technologies such as CDPD and Mobitex, the digital packet wireless system first deployed by RAM Mobile Data and now run by BellSouth. External and PC Card modems make Mobitex and CDPD available to most mobile computing devices. Transmission speed via dedicated channels is relatively slow, the modem devices are rather expensive, and service can be costly.

Mobitex is also used by the RIM 950 Inter@ctive Pager that can interact with the desktop to send and receive wireless email. The software packages incoming desktop email, routes it via Internet to a portal which passes it to the wireless transmission network. A few seconds later, your email (albeit sans attachments) appears on the pager. Send one from the pager and it travels back to your desktop. There is no need for separate email IDs, and the RIM works for many days on a single AA battery.

Local area wireless network solutions from Lucent and Proxim allow SOHO customers or even individual consumers to install their own wireless LANs quickly and cheaply. Prices for wireless LANs have dropped to below $200 per device.

The most common form of wireless data transmission is still via conventional cellular technology. Cellphones and compatible modems allow laptops and handheld computers to communicate wirelessly. It works but is susceptible to signal dropout-deadly to digital data streams-and analog speed is limited to about 14.4kbps.

Cellular Digital Packet Data devices allow mobile computers to use today's modern equivalent of wireless LAN technology. CDPD "steals" space between cellular voice conversations and channels digital packets of data just like wireline networks. These systems are deployed by the likes of Bell Atlantic and AT&T, so a significant portion of the population is covered. Some CDPD carriers have dedicated frequencies for the technology and do not make use of the remarkably clever "interleaved" approach. Speed ranges up to 19.2kbps.

LAN technologies-whether they are targeted at vertical markets like the Spread Spectrum systems from Proxim, or at the SOHO market like products from Lucent, Proxim, Apple and others-provide in-building wireless connectivity. Speeds between one and two Mbps make them perfectly adequate for all but the most demanding applications, and the 2.6Ghz frequency range affords reasonable immunity to interference. A perfect solution when conventional wiring is impossible.

Having been fascinated with wireless technology for years, I have tried to pick up as much about it as I can, and I've used most of the technologies and services I mentioned. In the process, I've come across quite a few problems.

Problem #1 is coverage, or rather the lack of it. Nothing ticks off a cell phone user more than that a "no service" message on the display, and the same goes for users of other wireless technologies. Each of the wireless networks I've mentioned still has a long way to go to total nationwide coverage.

Problem #2, cost, has long been addressed by the cell phone industry but the wireless data folks don't seem to get it. Usage charges can easily double the cost of your Palm VII in just two months. Some CDPD companies are offering unlimited rate plans coupled with ISP Internet accounts, but only for consumers. Business users still face the packet-based rate chart.

Problem #3 is speed. Average wireless speeds are now up to over 14.4kbps but don't even think of surfing the web at that rate unless, you're willing to give up graphics and downloads and just live with text. That works for a while, but I always find myself missing "the real thing."

I am ready for wireless, both on a personal and professional level. It's taken far too long to get here, and now that I've tasted the independence and freedom wireless connections can provide, I don't know how I ever managed without them. I want my wireless data and email now, and wireless technology can make that happen on a grand scale if its purveyors manage to fix the few remaining nagging problems.

So is it a wireless world yet? Yes, and it's getting bigger while the real world gets smaller.

Dominic Giangrasso can be reached via e-mail at

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