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The future of wireless

INTODUCTION

We live in a world (wireless) in which we accept not just that technology constantly changes, but also that the rate at which technology changes will continue to increase. With many technologies,change affects only the use of the technology itself, not the world at large. Faster processors means that programs run more quickly. Larger monitors let you see more onscreen at once, Faster network adapters reduce the time it takes to copy files to or from a file server. But none of these extremely welcome technological advances significantly affect our social, economic, or political worlds.

Not so with wireless networking. More than most other technologies, wireless networking affects how you travel and how you use the Internet. Plus, you may find that wireless Internet access affects how, where and when you work, and that can significantly affect the way companies that provide Internet access. And because the radio spectrum is governed by regulatory bodies throughout the world, building and using wireless networks can affect your relationship with the government.

Future of wireless technology

That said, all technologies are destined for obsolescence, some much sooner then others.

Our offices are practically museums of failed ideas; could wireless networking be yet another one? Nah. But even though wireless networking is here to stay, that doesn’t mean some specific networking technologies will escape the scrap heap of history. How soon our current flavors of wireless networking end up on that scrap heap relates to how they interact with the social, political and technical challenges that wireless networking faces today.

In this post, then, we look at some of these challenges and the near-term upgrades and changes to technologies we’ve discussed in this book. We also indulge in a little crystal ball gazing based on idea being tested in the lab or appearing in the wild.

CHALLENGES FACING WIRELESS

As much as the future seems rosy with respect to wireless networking, a wide variety of challenges loom on the horizon. The question that gnaws at us all as we contemplate spending our hard – earned money on some device is obsolescence — will you regret buying into Wi-Fi instead of waiting for something else, perhaps based on the cell phone network? If you do decide to install and use a Wi-Fi network, the questions don’t stop. As we discussed in chapter 6, Wireless Security, 802.11b has suffered from well-publicized security holes, adding another concern for anyone transmitting sensitive data over a wireless network connection.

You may find yourself grappling with the ethical and even legal issues of whether or not it’s acceptable to share Internet connections via a wireless network. That’s a significant issue with public community networks. Although these community networks would seem to be a good thing, the Internet service providers whose connections are being used far more heavily than anticipated are unhappy about the trend.

Wireless Obsolescence

It can be hard to overcome the fear of obsolescence with any technology, but angst is especially great when it comes to wireless networking, in part due to the number of devices involved. For instance, you typically must buy not just a wireless network adapter for your computer, but also an access point. And if you want to add multiple computers, that increases the investment in the technology. Should you worry about the 802.11b you haven’t yet bought into the technology, does it make sense to wait? In both cases, we’re happy to say that the answer is a resounding, “No!”

Wi-Fi still makes sense for a few reasons:

1. Wi-Fi (both 802.11a and 802.11b flavors) has clearly won. it’s too late for competitors like HomeRF to displace such a widely deployed standard.

2. All of the standards in progress for the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, which we talk about in the next section, don’t break Wi-Fi, but rather improve it in various ways while maintaining backward compatibility.

3. People have worried that there would be a split between 802.11a and 802.11b, which use different frequency bands. That split hasn’t materialized, mostly because dual-band adapters and access points that support both 802.11a and 802.11b appeared right on the heels of 802.11a. Practically every chip maker and every equipment manufacturer has made plans to sell dual-band gear.

Despite these reasons in favor of Wi-Fi, we can’t offer any solutions for the problem of technology buyer’s remorse–

you always pay more now than you will in the future. Worse, prices will certainly continue to decline while functionality increases. If you buy an 802.11b PC Card for $75 today, you might curse your timing if you see a combination 802.11a/b Wi-Fi card next week for only $80.

Likewise, if you wait, there will always be something better on the horizon. 802.11g, which is essentially a faster, backwards-compatible version of 802.11b, is due out in the middle of 2003. Because 80.11g equipment should cost about the same as 802.11b gear, we can’t see any reason to buy 802.11b gear at that point.

It all boils down to the standard answer we’ve become accustomed to giving worried friends and relatives: you have to buy the technology you need today and ignore the fact that prices will drop and functionality will increase in the future. There’s nothing wrong with waiting, but don’t deprive yourself of necessary technology now just because it will be better and cheaper in six months.

Regulatory Changes

You may have seen the quote from some pundit, “The cell phone industry will shut Wi-Fi down.” Right. And no college students will ever copy music without the recording industry’s permission.

We’ve repeatedly heard journalists, industry analysts, information technology managers, and individual users wonder aloud or presict that the cell phone companies would use their lobbying arms to force the FCC to change the rules governing unlicensed spectrum, making it impossible to use Wi-Fi in public spaces or possibly even indoors.

These speculations and statements ignore fundamental realities:

1. The FCC part 15 rules that allow Wi-Fi also govern a host of other wireless equipment. Any changes to Part 15 rules would affect many consumer electronics makers, such as cordless telephone vendors.

2. Millions of wireless network adapters and hundreds of thousands of access points have been sold to consumers and business.

3. Some national corporate services companies, like IBM Global Services, are making tend to hundreds of millions of dollars a year installing and maintaining networks for hot spot providers and large organizations.

4. Cell phone companies have actually started to dip their toes in the Wi-Fi water. The sprint PCS Group has invested in the wireless aggregator Boingo Wireless, T-Mobile USA operates the T-Mobile HotSpot network, and AT & T wireless operates a wireless network in Denver’s airport.

5. Microsoft, Intel, Proxim, 3Com, Cisco systems, Dell computer, Gateway,, Siemens, Motorola, Nokia, Agere Systems, Apple Computer, and many other major technology companies manufacture directly or resell massive amounts of Wi-Fi consumer and business gear, as well as related 2.4-GHz gear.

Sales and service revenue from Wi-Fi, other wireless networking standards, and part 15 consumer electronics represent an industry of well over a billion dollars today.

Within a few years, that amount is expected at least to double or triple. When that kind of money is involved, the companies are large and have significant vested interests in keeping their businesses healthy. Put simply, it’s almost unthinkable that the FCC would change the Part 15 rules in any way that would prevent the kind of wireless networing to which we’ve become accustomed.

Despite this money, some people worry that wireless networking may end up like the digital content world, where the $600 billion computer and electronics industries have shied away from challenging the unreasonable digital right restrictions that the $35 billion media industries (music, film, video, and TV) have attempted to have legislated in their behalf. In the case of wireless networking, the concern is that the large incumbent voice and data telecommunications companies will fight against cheap wireless networks.

Despite this money, some people worry that wireless networking may end up like the digital content world.

where the $600 billion computer and electronics industries have shied away from challenging the unreasonable digital rights restrictions that the $35 billion media industries (music, film, video, and TV) have attempted to have legislated on their behalf. In the case of wireless networking, the concern is that the large incumbent voice and data telecommunications companies will fight against cheap wireless networks.

Don’t worry. We’re already seeing the computer and electronics companies stepping up to defend wireless networking against potential legislative threats. For instance, two satellite digital radio companies recently attempted to have restrictions placed on the 2.4 GHz band used by 802.11b wireless networks and many other devices like cordless phones.

These two firms, XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, alleged that out-of-band signal leakage-the tiny bit of signal that can extend outside of an assigned spectrum due to a variety of conditions-would interfere with their car receivers’ capability to pick up distant satellite broadcasts. XM and Sirius attempted to get an FCC ruling on the matter, and in the very preliminary filings, before the FCC even accepted their petition for consideration, Intersil and Motorola wrote devastating (and hilarious) technical briefs opposing the petition.

Intensil wrote, ‘IfDARS (Digital Satellite radio)providers have trouble serving their customers, Part 15 is not to blame.

Rather, it appears the DARS providers built a fragile system, and now turn to the commission for relief from the shortcomings of their own engineering.” Intersil went on, “Sirius states that the maximum tolerable interference level for its receivers is – 152.6 dBW/MHz. This level is actually about 8 dB below the thermal noise floor.” This actually means that heat in the air creates more noise than the level of signal that the companies were objecting to. Motorola’s filing noted, “Interestingly enough in the filing by XM the main source of interference is not the equipment operating in the 2.4 Ghz band but interference from vehicle ignition noise.”

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