Bob Egan Ponders the Promise of Wireless
Bob Egan, vice president and research director at Gartner Group, is one of the most respected analysts in the field of enterprise wireless communications. Egan's background is in developing the technologies he now covers. He spent nine years at Digital Equipment, where he contributed to the development of switched Ethernet architectures, data transport over cable television and mobile IP. Egan has been an active participant on standards committees for the American National standards Institute and the IEEE, where he is an author of the IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN standard.
The wireless market is a strange place these days. Every time we turn around, there's news of another gee-whiz phone or wireless device that can be used to access the Internet. Yet carriers are still delivering data connections at no better than 19.2 kilobits per second, typically less, and connections may not even be available outside major metro areas. What's going on?
Data rate is really not the issue. Network latency, capacity and coverage are. Wireless data throughputs-a mere 8 to 10 kilobits per second today-will be boosted fourfold by the end of this year by compression technologies from companies like Nortel and Motorola. Thus, the real issue is when will digital data coverage expand enough to be reliable?
FFA: Carriers are telling enterprises to expect faster data access when they implement third-generation technologies. How much of a difference will that make?
BE: A big deal, but it won't happen before 2003. Subscribers who carry cell phones and PDAs are much more sensitive to network latency issues than to faster data rates, so they'll benefit to the extent that 3G networks improve network response times. The new networks, sporting mobile data rates up to 384 kilobits per second, also will increase network capacity and decrease the cost of bandwidth.
FFA: Right now, in the spring of 2000, what's the best way for companies deploying field personnel to use wireless technology?
BE: Use an integrator and avoid embedding a specific technology into the solution. Look to extend or replace certain brick-and-mortar operations to reduce costs and increase customer satisfaction. Be methodic and define requirements up front.
FFA: What are some of the companies, technologies and products to watch?
BE: Aether, Cerulean, MDSI, Neopoint, Nettech, Omnipoint Technologies, Omnisky, Palm.Phone.com and Symbol Technologies are all ones to watch.
FFA: Wireless LANs also have some appeal. Is the move to a faster 11 megabits per second connectivity speed an indication of the maturing of this technology?
BE: The elements for wireless LANs to go mainstream are at hand: standard solutions, adequate speed, interoperability, security, low cost--less than $125 per node--and a competitive buying landscape. Major investments have been made in wireless LANs by large traditional network companies such as Cisco, Lucent and Nortel, as well as by equipment suppliers to service providers such as Nokia. This is a billion dollar market right around the corner.
FFA: Who should be considering wireless LANs as an option?
BE: Wireless LANs should be used to extend the functionality of an existing LAN. They provide a way to support laptops and handhelds. Wireless LANs are very effective to lower network costs wherever additions, moves and changes are frequent. Public environments like airports, convention centers and hotels should consider wireless LANs to enable broadband Internet access.
FFA: Will we see a convergence of wireless LAN and WAN technologies?
BE: Yes, I think wireless LANs will show up in the home and in airports, hotels and other similar public spots to augment the reach of wireless Internet access.
FFA: To get data wirelessly to field personnel today, does it matter whether a company uses CDPD, Bellsouth's RAM Mobitex system or American Mobile's ARDIS?
BE: CDPD is not a national solution. CDPD solutions should be seen as short-term tactical solutions-say, 24 months. Many existing carriers who are migrating to wireless digital data solutions, such as Bell Atlantic and GTE, may retire their support for CDPD networks to use their valuable radio spectrum for digital services. ARDIS and RAM are near-national data-only solutions. RAM, now part of BellSouth Wireless Data's Mobitex network, has lower and more consistent latency and will consume less power from a handheld. ARDIS has a larger footprint and, in many markets, a higher data rate as well.
FFA: What wireless technology decisions can a company make today that will position it well for the next half-decade?
BE: Develop combined voice and data solutions. Choose GSM and CDMA networks for the best performance and least risk. Use data-only solutions to address immediate needs with a planned retirement four to five years out for all but very niche applications.