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Faster and more reliable wireless access is in the cards

How many access points are really available in the U.S.?

The late astronomer Carl Sagan is often erroneously credited with pointing out that there are "billions and billions" of stars and planets in the universe. This wide-ranging figure, open to interpretation, was far too imprecise for a scientist whose whole life was based on the search for the exact figures and facts about space. In fact, it was talk show host Johnny Carson who first used the term in skits that poked fun at the popular scientist.

Today, mobile workers are faced with the same imprecise and debatable terms that are associated with wireless access points available in the U.S. While there are certainly not "billions and billions" of 802.11 wireless transmitters and bridges offering access to the Internet, several thousand of these conduits are now up and running -- at least if you are to believe the various reporting and directory services which list these wireless points that exist within each city. The other day, we even visited a small software developer that had created a simple little program for tracking available wireless systems in the U.S., more as a way to demonstrate the capabilities of its database software than to offer a commercial application.

The reality is that while a lot of these wireless points do offer a channel to tap into the Internet while traveling, many of these systems provide minimal connection reliability at best. These systems, which are expected to quickly increase in number over the years, also offer little security, are sometimes hard to find because their locations are poorly marked (as we discovered earlier as we passed though the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport), and they can be expensive if you are an a la carte user who does not subscribe to Boingo or one of the other available aggregation services.

There is an alternative, however, for road warriors who yearn for reliable and pervasive wireless access and who do not want to pay exorbitant subscription fees or go sniffing around an airport lounge like some 1800s pioneer dowsing for water on parched farmland. Wireless carriers like Sprint and Verizon have been offering data access through their networks for quite some time. All that was needed is a PCMCIA access card (usually equipped with a small antenna), the appropriate software on your host systems, and a subscription to a wireless data plan (which typically supplemented your voice account).

In the past (which in this industry is as recent as last year), wireless access speeds through a cellular network have been ridiculously slow and the costs incredibly high. This limited use to a relative handful of pioneering converts, who tolerated the slower speeds and higher prices because there were just not a lot of 802.11 wireless hubs in existence. Now, however, most wireless carriers have developed and launched higher-speed wireless systems that still do not hit the speed levels of Wi-Fi, but are fast enough for most data access chores (e-mail, Internet-based customer lists, etc.). In many cases, these cellular networks are also more accessible and available than 802.11 networks, as we discovered during a recent month-long test of Verizon's CDMA2000 1x service.

Installing the system was a snap. It basically consists of a Sierra Wireless PCMCIA CDMA2000 1x card (which incorporates Qualcomm, Inc.'s 3G CDMA chip set), the necessary driver and communications software, and a "Wireless Watch" program that can be used to automatically scout around for cellular signals. At the moment, this service is currently available through both Verizon and Sprint PCS, with all-you-can-eat per-month prices averaging about $80-$100.

Once the Verizon software is installed, and your system re-booted to acknowledge the presence of that software, you are virtually up and running -- or at least walking very fast, since there is an adjustment to be made from the access speeds you may be used to getting under the 802.11 Wi-Fi umbrella. Let us explain:

On a very good day, you can probably squeeze out maybe one-tenth of the speeds promised on an 802.11b system, which means transmission speeds will range from about 400k bit/sec to 1.2M bit/sec. A far cry from the 11M bit/sec potential rate, but still pretty useful for most operations. With the tested CDMA 1000 1x system, we averaged speeds of roughly 80-100K bit/sec in real-world applications and under a variety of conditions. A lot slower than 802.11 hot spot access, but not that perceptible when dealing with e-mail access and files containing a moderate level of graphics and multimedia.

The obvious benefits of wireless WAN (wide area network) coverage are:

  • Immediate and relatively reliable access virtually anywhere, or at least anywhere there is an available cellular signal.
  • Stronger security, especially if you are utilizing a generic 801.11 wireless access point at your local coffee shop, and are not using a VPN as you punch through your corporate firewall.
  • True mobile access from wherever you may be, including a moving automobile, taxi cab or train. If you are within reach of a cellular signal, you can use the system for data access.
  • Both data and voice capabilities (the software included with our test card could be used to dial a voice number. Plug in a headset or ear bud and you are ready to take a voice call.
  • An elimination of the "great signal hunt" while in airports or stage cities. This means you can access your wireless network on your terms and not have to find an available seat outside a restroom or within a crowded and noisy restaurant area.

Nothing is perfect, of course, so there are some inherent limitations with CDMA2000 1x. These include:

  • The cost of the system. While $80 per month may not sound like much, it does become a significant financial cross to bear when you multiply that by thousands of field force or service workers. The costs becomes even more obvious when you consider the exponential rise in the number of 802.11 wireless access points within the U.S. -- which some analysts say may top well over 100,000 by 2006. Many hotels are also providing free 802.11 wireless access to business travelers.
  • Spotty wireless service. No matter how adamant the wireless carriers are about quality of service and reliability, cellular wireless signals still drop and connections are lost without much notice. While this is usually tolerated in a voice world, where you can routinely see users snuggled up against the late glass of airport windows to increase their coverage capabilities a bit, this is not as acceptable when you are dealing with data transmissions. This fact will become even more apparent as more and more "mission critical" data is channeled through cellular data systems.
  • The higher cost and relative fragility of cellular cards. The CDMA2000 1x card w were fortunate enough to play around with is price between $200 - $300, while a typical 802.11g card (offering theoretical, but never achievable speeds up to 54K bit/sec) will set you back about $99 or less. Also, the Sierra card we tested had a removable and foldable antenna, which plugged directly into the card.

Our advice would be to carry a spare, since this will inevitably be lost or broken during travel. A far better solution would be to pack all this antenna technology directly into the card, or perhaps a folding ruggedized antenna, like the one 3Com uses in its 802.11 and Bluetooth cards. But, this could impact performance and signal capture capability.

The bottom line is that we actually like using the Sierra CDMA2000 1x card and Verizon service, especially as a supplement to 802.11 wireless services. We actually used the card quite often in a particular area of our offices that is a "dead zone" when it comes to 802.11 coverage of any kind. We also tested the card in a number of different systems, ranging from several models of IBM ThinkPads and Toshiba notebooks to a Compaq iPaq Pocket PC (running Pocket PC 2000). In all cases, the system worked flawlessly and reliably -- even in the Pocket PC, since the included software offered applications that specifically target that smaller platform.

Most major wireless carriers are also working on developing much faster wireless systems, such as CDMA2000 1xEV, that will approach the speeds of 802.11b access (although Wi-Fi is still expected to be up to twice as fast as evolving high-speed cellular).

Pricing is still a concern with us, since we are technically a small business and must carefully watch every penny spent. But, rates are sure to drop as more users discover the obvious benefits of wireless WAN access, the competition increases among the wireless carriers in this space, and faster systems become available (making slower systems more affordable).

CDMA proponents, such as Qualcomm, may argue that when all is said and done and added up that wireless WANs are pretty competitive with 802.11 access when it comes to getting necessary data fast and anywhere you may be. In fact, Qualcomm senior vice president of marketing, Jeff Belk, has written a very compelling and entertaining journal of his experiences with both the CDMA2000 1x service and 802.11 wireless access and the world. The journal has been posted in various areas of the Web, including Alan Reiter's influential Weblog. The journal has generated a lot of comments (pro and con), which are also posted within the Reiter Weblog.

We'd be interested in your views and comments on Wireless WANs versus 802.11 systems, especially if you also have had the opportunity to use both networks. Replies and comments can be sent to us at tjscan@shorelineresearch.com. We promise to pick up your e-mail at the nearest 802.11 or cellular mailbox.

Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.


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