Wireless LANs reach next round

Wireless expansion plans in universities and workplaces

Wireless LANs have grown in the workplace -- in size, number of installations and technology maturity -- to the point that many IT managers now expect to expand the uses of their networks in a new round of investments within the next year or two.

Expansion plans include providing users with significantly increased bandwidth via the proposed 802.11n standard and deploying dual-mode phones that support both voice-over-Wi-Fi and cellular calls, according to interviews with 10 IT managers who run WLANs at companies, medical facilities and universities.

But not everyone is ready to take the plunge. Some of the IT managers said hardware upgrade costs and lingering concerns about wireless security will put a damper on the addition of features to their WLANs. And several analysts voiced doubts about how quickly large companies will adopt 802.11n, dual-mode phones and other upcoming wireless innovations. Pushing Ahead

BP is among the companies looking to push ahead with wireless technology. An estimated 50,000 office workers at BP already have WLAN access. Now the London-based petroleum company plans a "second round" of projects, including the addition of separate wireless access support for visitors and contractors, said Curt Smith, BP's director of application technologies.

BP is also undertaking a major wireless expansion at its refineries, production facilities and offshore drilling platforms, Smith said. Thus far, the company has installed wireless access points in two of 14 refineries, and it is starting to deploy mobile Wi-Fi hot spots on 500 trucks used by workers who service pipelines.

In addition, BP will start one or two tests of WiMax technology next year, probably at a refinery and a large oil field, Smith said. WiMax is expected to provide throughput of up to 15Mbit/sec. on mobile deployments and 40Mbit/sec. for fixed or portable applications, and it doesn't require end-user devices to have a direct line of sight to a base station. BP hopes the technology could provide a less expensive alternative to installing more wireless access points, Smith said. He noted that access points can cost US$5,000 apiece, a steep price given the complexities of installations at industrial sites, where up to 100 of the devices may be required to get suitable coverage now.

Wireless quality-of-service and security standards that were adopted last year have begun to give IT managers more confidence about the technology, helping to drive interest in pushing WLANs into new areas. Another highly sought-after standard is 802.11n, which could increase Wi-Fi throughput to up to 200Mbit/sec. -- about four times what is possible now. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is expected to ratify 802.11n in early 2008, according to a project timeline page on the IEEE's Web site.

WLANs are "growing and progressing fairly rapidly," making it "extremely important" for users to have access to the performance promised by 802.11n, said Brad Sandt, lead network engineer at the Park Hill School District in Missouri, U.S. Sandt said that because WLANs are shared networks, adding more users results in slower throughput, "so any additional bandwidth is greatly welcomed."

But Park Hill just installed a WLAN based on the current 802.11g technology in August. Sandt said he worries that upgrading the network, which has 725 access points, to 802.11n would cost too much too soon for the school district.

Sandt said he is also looking forward to installing dual-mode voice technology that supports both wireless and cellular calls. Most of Park Hill's administrative staffers have to carry two or three devices to stay connected now, he said, whereas dual-mode phones could be used to make calls over the WLAN when workers were within its range and then convert to regular cellular service when necessary.

Seamless communications between Wi-Fi and cellular installations is one of the goals of a US$300 million network convergence project that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center announced last month. As part of the project, UPMC plans to provide dual-mode handsets to up to 3,300 workers, said Bill Hanna, the medical center's vice president of IT infrastructure.

UPMC operates 19 hospitals and about 400 doctors' offices and other outpatient sites. Hanna said the dual-mode capabilities should help doctors and nurses as they move between buildings, since cellular service isn't always effective in the mountainous region around Pittsburgh. Conversely, they could use cellular connections in areas where the health care provider didn't have Wi-Fi links, he said.

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