Wi-Fi/Cellular at Crossroads

Businesses going mobile today face a daunting array of wireless access technologies, services and devices that are fairly complex to cobble together. To maximize network coverage, for example, most large organizations must work with several cellular network operators. They also often run their own private wireless LANs for faster, less expensive mobile campus connections.

Achieving broad mobile coverage could soon become less cumbersome, however, as LAN-speed Wi-Fi networks and cellular networks take their first early steps toward convergence.

Managing cellular wireless alone is a challenge that typically involves purchasing, provisioning, managing and securing a variety of wireless cards, devices and network service suppliers.

"When managing multiple vendor relationships and configurations, the cost rises exponentially and eats up time," says Tony Fuller, CIO at a large retailer. "And users adjusting to use different networks spend time concentrating on the device, not on the work at hand."

The convergence of Wi-Fi and mobile devices and networks -- which will eventually hand off signals to each other so users won't have to reauthenticate when crossing network boundaries - could help address these problems. Nascent industry endeavours to bridge these environments promise to extend the reach of wireless networks, reduce the number of client devices per user and streamline the lives of both IT and the mobile worker.

The IT community likes the sound of wireless convergence -- at least on paper. "We use both wireless [LAN] and cellular. Obviously, we'd love to have the two converge into a single wireless source," says Vern Butler, chief technology officer at CWCapital, a commercial loan company. "Handoffs between mobile networks would allow our lenders to continue conducting business independent of the network available and maximize the use of their time."

Paul Limon, IT manager for the Americas at heavy equipment manufacturer JCB, concurs. "Extending our [virtual LANs] out across multiple wireless networks would be a natural for us, particularly for our quality-control inspectors," he says. "Who wants to continually log on and log off?"

The required technology components are arriving piecemeal, however, so converged mobile nirvana isn't here just yet. As a first step, laptops and handheld devices are gaining embedded connections to both Wi-Fi and mobile WAN networks. This gives a device a higher probability of finding and connecting to a nearby wireless network, effectively extending the user's mobile coverage. Some converged service offerings are already available.

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