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WLANs are much more than LANs without wires

Experts at CeBit America say that wireless LANs have the potential to do much more than simply extend the wired network, such as support converged wireless phones and enable location-based applications.

NEW YORK -- Experts said wireless LANs are well on their way to becoming converged, multi-purpose networks that not only integrate features like voice and location, but also work seamlessly with cellular networks as part of a larger mobility strategy.

At the CeBit America conference Tuesday, a panel of representatives from the Wi-Fi industry painted a picture of wireless LANs that illustrated how they are much more than an extension of the wired LAN.

Wireless networks will soon support voice among other applications as wired networks do, but WLANs have the potential to do much more, said panelist Lynn Lucas, director of marketing for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Proxim Corp. Soon, integrated Wi-Fi/cellular phones will be widely available, she said, enabling a company's employees to roam back and forth between public to private networks.

In addition, wireless networks enable the use of location-based devices and applications, said Andris Berzins, vice president of marketing and business development at San Mateo, Calif.-based Bluesoft Inc. His company has developed small Wi-Fi radios that can be used as locator tags to track people and objects within the range of a Wi-Fi network.

Bluesoft is best known for developing the wrist tags worn by children at LegoLand in Denmark, so they can be tracked by the park's Wi-Fi system. But that potential can go far beyond locating missing children, Berzins said. Businesses can track hard-to-find inventory, like a misplaced vehicle in a crowded parking lot, or even something as simple as finding a lost overhead projector in an office building.

"Companies need to think broadly about what Wi-Fi can do," he said.

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Bill Mack, director of network, telecommunications and video at Mitre Corp., a McLean, Va.-based IT services contractor for government agencies, agreed with that assessment.

"If you already have Wi-Fi, you might as well use it," he said.

Right now Mitre employees end up carrying too many devices to access a large number of networks, Mack said. Those on the road often have a BlackBerry e-mail device, a separate PDA, a cell phone and a laptop. He hopes that with better roaming across networks, the number of devices will shrink.

In addition, he said the concept of using Wi-Fi to locate inventory or even personnel can be very useful. His organization is already using presence-based applications across its Wi-Fi network. Location is just an extension to that, he said.

Using Wi-Fi in more creative ways is an important key to helping Mitre get its business done more efficiently, Mack said.

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