Feature: Technology advances sweeten wireless data's future

Mix a mobile phone with a modem-equipped laptop, stir in wireless data and what pops out is a dish too sour for the taste of most network managers.

In their eyes, wireless data platforms are too slow, too fiddly and too expensive to make the corporate network infrastructure A-team.

But sweeter times are coming for wireless data delivery and they are coming fast.

Today's 9.6Kbit/sec ceiling on widely-used wireless technology is about to jump to 64Kbit/sec.

That will happen in the next 12 months as Telstra launches its Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) digital mobile network and Cable & Wireless Optus upgrades its Global Service for Mobile communications (GSM) technology.

(Unlike conventional digital wireless technology, which supports multiple data sessions by assigning them different frequencies and time slots, CDMA crunches them all on the same frequency simultaneously and uses mathematical codes to stop them interfering with each other.)The following year, so-called third generation (3G) wireless technology advances now in the pipeline should shove speeds to 384Kbit/sec, according to Scott Erickson, Asia Pacific vice president of Lucent Technologies' wireless networks group. It will also bring 2Mbit/sec into range as the next achievable landmark for wireless data transfer.

Even in the next six months, the 9.6Kbit/sec ceiling on GSM data rates will move to 14.4Kbit/sec thanks to improvements in the GSM standard, says Optus Mobile communications manager Glen Thomas.

Network managers should also keep an eye on Local Multipoint Distribution Services (LDMS) if they are looking for a fat wireless pipe to connect large corporate servers. LDMS is radio technology in the 25GHz band capable of delivering broadband wireless.

Its use in Australia should be jump-started when that part of the spectrum is auctioned by the Australian Communications Authority early next year. For IT managers, the point is that wireless access -- whether based on GSM, CDMA, LDMS or some combination of those -- is poised to become a full partner in the corporate network. Instead of a roadblock, it will become an enabler of applications, says Lucent's Erickson.

The alphabet soup of standards may look daunting to user organisations forced to pick their way through purchasing options on laptops, wireless modem kits and cell phones.

Cooperation between carriers, manufacturers and standards committees should make the technology interplay transparent to users, according to Erickson.

To rule out nasty surprises, he recommends network managers talk to their network providers to pin down the availability and timing of the new high-speed technologies.

Strong pockets of wireless data users already exist in niche markets such as the taxi, courier and transport industries where a bandwidth ceiling of 9.6Kbit/sec is adequate for the type of traffic they generate.

United Wireless is a specialist data carrier that uses Ericsson's Mobitex packet-data protocol to provide wireless links to remote terminals such as meters and security devices.

The other packet-data wireless carrier is Telstra, which employs Motorola's Datatec standard.

Both offer a bandwidth of eight to 9Kbit/sec which is sufficient for the short, bursty data carried in the 'down and dirty industrial end' where United operates, said business development director Howard Murdoch.

But it is not a cost-effective solution for the kind of e-mail traffic sent by white collar workers in the general business community.

Performance bottlenecks spring up because e-mail messages are often studded with large attached files.

Among white collar workers, power users are open to the option of accessing corporate data via wireless communications.

"It is a question of how individuals prefer to work . . . you have to give them the flexibility," says Grant Burrows, IT director for Queensland's Golden Casket Lottery Corp.

In his organisation, cellular use is based more on personal work patterns than a need for immediate access, he said.

"It is not so much to do with urgency of contact but because they are power users who have organised their work heavily around what PC technology can do. "Typically, they are people who do a lot of information analysis against the internal server.

"Cellular is just another adjunct they would use if they wanted to get in touch and didn't have a wall plug handy."

In addition, the trend toward more sophisticated client/server applications means many IT managers want to see a well-trodden path to higher bandwidths before they will seriously factor wireless access into their networks.

The core business users of mobile wireless services are sales representatives, service engineers and travelling executives.

A key mistake made in providing applications to this group lies in trying to downsize desktop applications instead of redesigning them with the road warrior's special environment in mind, says Ashley Bloch, MD of value-added wireless solutions specialist Freedom Technologies.

"It is not about taking your corporate system and making it portable for your sales people.

"That is what has been happening in the past and it is why the failure rate is so high."

Sales reps in particular won't use something if it isn't convenient and simple, lightweight and quick to boot up. As well, applications should designed with computer novices in mind and should be pen-based and idiot-proof, Bloch maintains.

He welcomes the new generation of handheld computers running under Windows CE, plus infrared modems and mobile phones with infrared drivers as providing the light weight, lack of cable clutter and low power consumption users want.

Along with properly-designed applications, they will solve the problems that have slowed the takeup of digital wireless data, he predicts.

The Casio PA2400, which has the largest form factor of any pen-based CE device, and Ericsson's SH 888 handset are prime examples of the new breed, Bloch says.

Besides ease of use, business must factor costs into the wireless data equation.

At present, the significantly higher cost of cellular calls presents a serious obstacle to an expansion of insurance giant MMI's use of wireless connections at the expense of fixed line calls, says general manager, IT, Frank Liebeskind.

Optus Mobile's Thomas agrees wireless is a costly way to transfer data but argues that some road warriors have no alternative to wireless links and that costs are headed south.

"We are seeing the cost of voice calls on digital mobiles coming down, and carriers becoming more innovative as to how they price their mobile offerings, regardless of whether it is voice or data."

At present, only five to 10 per cent of business users with mobile phones use them to establish data communications with their companies, estimates communications consultant Paul Budde. Optus' Thomas puts in the percentage at "no higher than five".

About 25 per cent use messaging services but choose to display the message on their mobile phone screen, not on a laptop computer. In other words, combining data communications and mobile voice is not a mission-critical application for most companies and the Australian wireless data market is yet to reach critical mass, notes Ovum senior analyst Alex Nourzouri.

Because of that, organisations trying to sort out equipment problems with resellers can run into headaches.

By and large, "the distribution channel doesn't want anything to do with data and shrivels up when it is mentioned", says Nourzouri.

"Existing channels are good at voice but not data, so problem areas can be nightmares to solve."

That will change in the next year or so as the major carriers start supporting packet data and speeds up to 64Kbit/sec, Nourzouri says.

"Terminals will be more data-friendly rather than voice-oriented, a lot of the software will be built in and there will be fewer fiddly cables and more off-the-shelf product.

"At that stage, life will become a lot easier for mobile data users."

As far as wireless technologies are concerned, a tug of war is now under way between GSM, whose power base is in Europe, and CDMA, which is the way North America is leaning. In Australia, Optus is backing GSM and Telstra is supporting CDMA.

Lucent's Erickson believes the third general mobile networks will see overlays that allow GSM and wideband CDMA to merge as far as end users are concerned.

"Australia right now has a great opportunity to be one of most advanced countries in wireless communications," he says.

"Because of the new carrier licences awarded by the government, operators are deploying the latest state of the art networks which give them the chance to move into higher types of data application traffic.

It also bestows on Australia a network environment that is more easily adapted to the 3G technology that will make the marriage of wireless and data more palatable to IT managers.

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