Wireless: sparks are set to fly

Think wireless, think late nineteenth century, well before Computerworld; Marconi won the race to patent electromagnetic energy transmission in 1896.

“Marconi was the first to bring together the natural phenomena with the equipment to turn it into something with business potential,” says wireless history buff Stewart Fist.

Wireless then allowed a single electric spark to be detected across a room, then across town and by 1899 across 21km.

The receiver was called a Coherer, and it was tapped with a little hammer after each ‘spark’ was received over the ether.

The Italian Marconi (funded by British Telegraph), a New Zealander called Cavandish, an Australian called Oliver and others started playing with the idea of frequencies in the early 1900s — allowing many messages to be sent simultaneously through the same ether.

A boom followed — modulators in 1904, amplifiers appeared in 1911, the first music by 1920. Early wireless transmission was data based — not voice based. “Morse code was a digital signal that depended on human CPEs to translate into language,” Fist says.

Wireless hit the front page with the sinking of the Titanic — it was a tragedy that so many died, but a boon that so many were saved, thanks entirely to wireless technology. Wireless became a standard technology for all shipping.

Beam-forming technology was next, patented by Marconi in 1924. Directional transmission allowed greater distance to be covered and for ether to be split by both frequency (spectrum) and geography. In 1927 a voice-based radio service was set up between London and New York — at a rate of £15 for three minutes — many times the average weekly wage of the time.

Beam-forming wireless technology was the basis of the Empire Service, the only link between Australia and the rest of the world for many years from about 1930.

Wireless became a household technology during World War II, used as a critical propaganda tool by the Nazis and the British. The rest is history. Wireless was picked up by the IT industry in various guises — most notably by Bob Metcalfe at Xerox Labs in 1973. Ethernet, today’s ubiquitous networking physical layer standard, is named for ‘ether’ because, at first, it was a wireless technology.

Metcalfe’s Ethernet was based on work completed by Norman Abramson at the University of Hawaii — Aloha Net was the world’s first packet radio data network.

Cables quickly became the standard and radio was all but forgotten.

But, the wheel turns and today wireless ‘radio’ local area networks are back in vogue with the advent of the Wi-Fi Alliance. The Wireless Fidelity Alliance (Wi-Fi) is an industry response to the slow pace of the IEEE standards committees — in particular the 802.11 standard.

Watching developments closely has been Robin Simpson, research director, mobile and wireless with Gartner Australia.

The 802.11 wireless standards are designed for high-speed wireless local area networking.

The standard is primarily deployed over the ISM band, a part of the spectrum put aside for ‘public’ use. Equipment used to transmit in the ISM band needs to be licensed — not individual users. Other bands require both equipment and user to carry a licence.

Simpson says 802.11’s major issue is security. 802.11b has either 64- or 128-bit encryption, but the big limitation is that it uses a static key, Simpson says.

The solution, 802.11i, is on the table at the IEEE. Agreed is that there should be dynamic keys, agreed is the key exchange mechanism, not agreed is the mathematical algorithm by which the dynamic keys would be created.

Enter Wi-Fi.

Frustrated with the pace of security standard resolution, a consortium of vendors has put its own security standard to market — and that is what Wi-Fi is — 802.11 with a proprietary security layer.

According to Simpson, as soon as IEEE resolves the issue, Wi-Fi will adapt to whatever it is. Even with added security, Wi-Fi is still struggling, Simpson says.

“For it to be compelling, you need a lot of hotspots (areas that are covered by a base station),” Simpson says.

This plays to the second big reason wireless networking has not taken the enterprise by storm.

“The two great inhibitors to wireless local area networking in the enterprise are security concerns and a lack of awareness of the value of mobility,” Simpson says.

It is a classic catch-22. Until wireless is used widely, its value won’t be understood; but it won’t be widely deployed until its value — mobility — is clearly understood.

A ray of hope lies in the consumer market. According to Gartner, the wired home looks like never happening — instead it will be the wireless home. Wi-Fi and 802.11 appliances are selling like hot cakes in the US and Korea and indications are good for a takeoff in Australia.

The other potential for wireless sits in the market of ‘personal broadband’ — a potential disruptive technology, according to Simpson. Vendors such as Navini, Arraycomm and Flarion are developing wireless dedicated data linking technology that may deliver broadband-scale bandwidth of 1Mbps over distances of 5km or more.

Fully proprietary, the technology would be based around mobile phone-style base stations, and anyone within range being able to access the network at high speed.

It’s disruptive, as it may displace fixed line broadband services — at least until household appetite increases to 3 to 4Mbps with the advent of HDTV.

And in the distance — Simpson sees Ultra Wideband — a technology capable of transmitting 1Gbps over big distances at very low power. Look out for it in five to 10 years.

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