WLAN CEOs look to the future

A group of WLAN executives told a group at N+I that 802.11 networks will soon be ubiquitous and taken for granted, but today's public hot spot business models may be in jeopardy.

LAS VEGAS -- A panel of CEOs and chief technology officers from wireless technology vendors said that by 2006, 50% of businesses will have wireless LANs (WLANs), and because of that dramatic growth, Wi-Fi will soon be everywhere.

Peter Vicars, CEO of Waltham, Mass.-based Chantry Networks Inc., and one of the panelists last week at Networld+Interop 2004 agreed that ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage was likely to happen in the near future. Children today are growing up with wireless access in their schools. Now that they are coming to expect that kind of constant connectivity, he said, the market is likely to deliver it.

Wireless cities

One way wireless will be more prevalent is through city-sized networks, said Ron Sege, president and CEO of San Mateo, Calif.-based Tropos Networks Inc. Sege, whose company builds metro-area Wi-Fi networks, is already seeing some interest in his products.

Ultimately, metro-area networks make more sense than uncoordinated public hot spots, Sege said, because they can be accessed anywhere. He compared the hot spot business model to building phone booths in a world where people already have cell phones.

While Wi-Fi was not designed for such large outdoor deployments, Tropos uses a mesh networking architecture to cover large areas and smart access points to help manage the system.

Radio frequency management is likely to be one of the biggest issues facing cities -- and even enterprises -- as they roll out large-scale wireless networks, said Jim Vogt, president and CEO of Pleasanton, Calif.-based Trapeze Networks.

"The real question for businesses is how they increase the number of users without decreasing manageability or security," Vogt said.

Most of the executives on the panel developed their businesses by trying to solve that very problem. All except for Tropos have developed centralized architectures to help businesses better manage and secure large Wi-Fi systems.

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Emerging technologies

The panelists were skeptical of emerging wireless technologies, such as ultra wideband and Wi-Max. Sege said that by the time Wi-Max is market-ready, Wi-Fi will already have such a large installed base that the new technology would not be an effective competitor.

Such technology would not take over wireless, but like other wireless technologies, would likely find a niche, Vicars said.

To take advantage of a world where multiple wireless networks coexist, devices would likely have three or more radios in them, such as Nokia's recently announced dual mode Wi-Fi and cellular phone, Vicars said. In a few years, mobile phones will likely have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular radios, allowing users to roam between public and private networks.

All the panelists agreed that it would not be long before we all live in the wireless world that today's teens are coming to expect.

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