The Future is Seamless

We live, says wireless telecom guru Chander Dhawan, in a lazy society. Which is why Dhawan, founder and principal consultant at Toronto-based DOLNET Computer Communications Inc., believes we’ll eventually need — or, rather, demand — hybrid wireless networks that let subscribers roam seamlessly between

high-speed WiFi office LANs or hotspots and wide area mobile networks.

Dhawan would like to subscribe to a service that keeps him connected to the Net to receive important e-mail while he’s travelling — to a client meeting, say — then lets him switch without skipping a beat to a high-speed WiFi LAN or hotspot when he gets there so he can surf the Net before going in to his meeting.

“”You can do this now, of course — go through a few keystrokes to [disconnect] from one network [and connect] to the other,”” he says. “”But you don’t want to. You want it to be easy. As a society, we’re becoming lazier and lazier.””

Dhawan has for a few years now been a voice in the wilderness with his vision of the hybrid wireless network. The rest of the world may be starting to catch up, though. Enterprise IT managers deploying wireless LANs are beginning to ask how they can leverage their investment by extending wireless coverage for users away from the facility.

Inter-modal wireless roaming certainly won’t happen tomorrow, and it won’t really happen just because people are lazy. But the groundwork for it is being laid now. In an effort to kick-start the market for WiFi hotspots, Canada’s four mobile carriers last year signed a world-first roaming agreement they hope will do for hotspots what Interac did for bank machines — make them widely accessible, and thus attractive to a much broader base of customers. “”We believe business users will be looking at [hotspot access] as a subscription service,”” says Robert Blumenthal, vice-president of products and services at Telus Mobility. “”In order to get the market to grow, though, we need [hotspot] coverage. In order to get coverage, we need the market to grow.””

The carrier initiative is designed to break this logjam. They developed standards for service and connectivity and are building shared infrastructure to handle authentication and reconciliation and to connect hotspots, both their own and those of participating independent service providers.

The carriers don’t really want to build the hotspots themselves. They’d much rather independents do it for them — companies such as Vancouver’s FatPort Corp. and Ottawa’s BoldStreet Wireless Internet that already have networks of hotspots in place. But the carriers will step in if need be to seed the market. Telus already has about 100 hotspots, mostly in the west. Bell has about 25, most in the east. The first commercial services based on the agreement will launch later this year, probably with about 500 hotspots available to subscribers.

This will bring convergence between WiFi and mobile wireless on the level of billing at least. Seamless roaming between hotspots and wide area networks will take a little longer. Canadian carriers won’t say how long, but claim they are working on solving the considerable technological and business problems associated with it.

U.S. carriers, particularly T-Mobile, have been talking up the idea of inter-modal roaming for a couple of years. And developers such as NetMotion Inc. and Padcom Inc. are deploying first-generation roaming technology today.

Nokia, meanwhile, recently introduced the first cellular phone with built-in WiFi connectivity — a signal that wireless convergence may eventually be about more than just data connectivity.

“”If the handset manufacturers build hybrid wide area-WiFi terminals, this will be a longer-term solution for in-building [cellular] coverage,”” says Ledas. A few more hybrid phones like the Nokia model will arrive this year, he says, followed by a flood next year.

A few enterprises are already deploying IP voice over internal WiFi wireless LANs, using portable handsets from companies such as Symbol Technologies Inc. They could theoretically roam on to public wide area networks, something they can’t do now.

Telus and its partner Spotnik Mobile of Toronto have deployed large-scale public-private WiFi networks with the same infrastructure used for hotspot services and internal data networks — at BCE Place in Toronto, for example, and the Vancouver airport. Hewlett-Packard is installing a similar WiFi network at Pearson Airport in Toronto.

There is little demand yet from mainstream customers for these kinds of services, carriers say. But as with other nice-to-have technological innovations, niche applications will create the initial demand. Police forces across North America have been pioneering inter-modal wireless roaming for a couple of years. They set up hot zones in their station precincts and outfit cruisers with laptop computers that can use either a narrowband wide area network or the 802.11 hotspot to connect to systems at the station. It’s a way of extending local area network services to officers in their cruisers so they don’t have to come in to the station house.

Police in Hamilton, Ont., last year switched to Bell Mobility’s 2.5G 1xRTT (60 kilobit per second) wide area network for mobile data applications. Later this summer the force will begin piloting the use of WiFi hotspots in the parking lots of its stations. “”The system will allow officers to switch seamlessly from hotspot to wide area network,”” says manager of IT Ross Memmolo. “”As they drive away, they’ll be automatically switched to the 1X network.””

The business case in Hamilton is not so much about officers pulling in to the station parking lot to upload reports or download mug shots. The hard-dollar benefits derive more from IT efficiencies — the ability to push software upgrades to officers’ laptops en masse over the WLAN instead of seeking them out and doing them one at a time.

Dhawan, meanwhile, is working on a hybrid network solution for ParaTrans, a specialty transportation company serving the disabled. In the morning, the drivers will download their manifests for the day from taxi vans using a WiFi hotspot at the firm’s garage, something that would take 10 to 15 minutes over a mobile network. When they’re out on their routes, the drivers can use the wide area network to send back update information on who they picked up and dropped off — a relatively small amount of data.

The logic of such a solution may seem unassailable — WiFi when you’re transferring large files, mobile networks for small amounts of data. And clearly it could be extended to other enterprise scenarios. But wireless consultant Derek Kerton, principal in The Kerton Group of San Jose, Calif., warns that careful needs analysis is required before embarking on an expensive inter-modal roaming application. “”There will be lots of scenarios where you look at it and have to ask, realistically, is plugging in just as easy and more reliable [than using WiFi]?”” Kerton says.

WiFi-to-cellular may not be the only way to skin this cat. Vendors such as Tropos Networks are marketing WiFi-based mesh network solutions they claim make it economically feasible for municipalities or service providers to establish city-wide WiFi hotzones. This would obviate the need for inter-modal roaming for data and voice applications.

WiMmax (IEEE 802.16), a wide area wireless technology specifically designed to work hand-in-glove with WiFi, would make inter-modal roaming between hotspots and wide area networks much easier to accomplish. The first WiMax products will appear late this year.

And IPWireless Inc. is still somehow flying below the radar with its 3G systems that let service providers offer true broadband services — up to two megabits per second — over a wide area.

Any of these technological wild cards could change the whole picture.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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