Wireless leads network convergence revolution

The seamless hand off between public, corporate, and home networks is here, erasing traditional boundaries and ushering in a time in which one pervasive network will prevail.

Reflecting this change, wireless local area networks are reaching out to provide network connectivity between offices, hallways, and conference rooms. But it doesn't end there. Wireless coverage is on a steady march into public spaces, homes, and cars, and by the end of 2003 it will board the plane on a traveler's next flight.

While the business and social repercussions are still being understood, the end result is the arrival of transparent, seamless access to services, regardless of location, according to Anil Uberoy, senior vice president of business technology at Xacct Technologies Inc. in Santa Clara , Calif.

Xacct Technologies inked a deal last week with The Boeing Co. that will put Wi-Fi on Lufthansa Airlines, with British Airways and Japan Airlines to follow shortly. U.S. carriers are expected to retrofit their planes for transcontinental flights before the end of the year, Uberoy said.

The Wi-Fi hubs on the plane will connect to Boeing's satellite system delivering 20GB of spectrum to each plane. When shared among all the passengers, this will deliver a DSL-quality connection to each seat.

While the digital convergence puzzle is still being completed, one of the most important pieces is already in place -- VoIP (Voice over IP).

A clear indication of its arrival and advancing maturity in the enterprise is the availability of third-generation, IP-based PBXs from the likes of Cisco Systems Inc., Avaya Inc., 3Com Corp., Nortel Networks Corp., Siemens AG, and others. These newer systems, designed to replace the older and reliable analog system, can finally rate as an equal.

According to Joan Vandermate, vice president of product management at Munich-based Siemen's enterprise networks , IP PBXs are on par with the old systems in terms of functionality, reliability, and scalability.

"The technology is ready," Vandermate says, "but the adoption is lagging." Vandermate and others point to the economic climate and the collective decision to take a migratory approach, rather than "rip-and-replace."

It is becoming clear to most, however, that the technology is fully mature. One sure sign is Cisco's announcement late last year that it had switched over all of its traditional PBXs to IP-based PBXs. The company said it has more than 23,000 IP phones in operation.

Another good indicator is the emergence of new players. Lesser-known companies such as Pingtel Inc. and new entrant Zultys Technologies have arrived with PBXs that feature advanced security and -- most importantly -- greater openness.

Both companies promote SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and Voice XML, two standards that give greater flexibility to customers. But savvy veterans are already adding support for these emerging protocols.

The likeliest drivers of future VoIP adoption are the advancements and adoption of SIP-based technologies, both in applications and phones.

The promise of a SIP-enabled network is an enterprise is which employees have only one phone and can be reached anywhere they've plugged into the network. And with advancements of wireless networking it won't be long before employees can roam freely across a campus with a phone -- making work possible from anywhere.

Last month, Motorola Inc. announced a deal with Avaya Inc. and Proxim Inc. to create the first integrated handset with both Wi-Fi and wide area wireless, allowing conversations and data to continue to flow as the user moves from place to place.

And at the end of 2002, Cometa Networks Inc. was formed created by AT&T Corp., IBM Corp., and Intel Corp. Cometa will roll out a national Wi-Fi network to give mobile workers access to their private networks whether they stop at any national hotel chain, restaurant, or retail store.

It's difficult to estimate the ultimate potential of digital convergence may end , but some suggest filling up for gas at the service station could at some point also include wireless downloads of movies, music, e-mail, and software updates.

John Jordan, principal at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young in Cambridge , Mass. , likes the idea. Jordan believes the goal of end-to-end broadband wireless connections will reach a "tipping point" as soon as this year.

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