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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As part of a technology trial, about 50 workers at Anthony Marano, a fruit and produce distributor in Chicago, for the past 18 months have been using dual-mode phones made by Motorola. Chris Nowak, the distributor's IT director, said the phones have provided "substantial productivity gains" by letting users roam throughout the company's WLAN-equipped warehouse and continue talking on a cellular network if they go outside to examine a delivery truck.

Nowak isn't fully satisfied with the current dual-mode phones, though. He said he'd like to see a model that has a better display and is less expensive so he could give the phones to more users.

Motorola is working on a new dual-mode handset for customers such as Marano, said Kevin Goulet, director of product management at the vendor's enterprise mobility solutions group. But, he added, Motorola has learned from trials at Marano and other sites that most workers don't need dual-mode capabilities and would prefer handhelds supporting data and voice for WLAN use only.

At least a dozen dual-mode phones have been introduced by vendors. But the big question for potential users is how to provide security for handoffs from WLANs to cellular and back again, especially when public Wi-Fi hot spots are involved, analysts said.

The Boeing Co. is a case in point. The aircraft maker has made a major commitment to WLAN technology for more than four years and currently has about 3,000 access points installed in plants and offices in 48 states, said Allen Ballinger, senior manager of distributed networks integration at Boeing. The highest concentrations of access points are on manufacturing floors, where pulling Ethernet cable into cramped locations would be impractical, Ballinger said.

But Cliff Naughton, Boeing's director of network services, said the company is "very security-conscious," which governs how it will extend the uses of its WLANs. With dual-mode phones, a wireless carrier would have to support roaming onto corporate networks and vice versa, which is "extremely complicated," Naughton said. "It gets kind of onerous. We will not be fielding production applications until we feel confident."

In the near term, adding voice over Wi-Fi by itself "is more viable," said Doug Hill, chief network architect and an associate technical fellow at Boeing. Even so, he added, some strict rules will need to be applied to keep voice quality high, especially with so many WLAN users. He also cited concerns that transmissions from radio frequency identification tags on a separate network might interfere with Wi-Fi voice calls.

As for expanding wireless bandwidth with 802.11n, Hill said Boeing isn't interested in installing thousands of new access points until well after 2008. "It's a lot of hardware change, and not something we're fired up about," he said.

Naughton said Boeing has talked with vendors about where it might be able to take advantage of WiMax and ZigBee, an emerging wireless technology for monitoring and controlling the temperature, lighting and security of buildings. But he said it likely will be "quite a long time" before Boeing is interested in putting ZigBee-based capabilities into buildings, partly because the company is consolidating its manufacturing and office space, not expanding it.

Paul DeBeasi, a Burton Group analyst, said that with the addition of 802.11n and other standards being developed for functions such as roaming and wireless network management, "Wi-Fi will be really reliable, predictable and high performance." It's hard to forecast, though, when those standards will be adopted by users, he added.

Gartner analyst Philip Redman predicted that 802.11n-based technology won't be widely installed until 2012, even if the IEEE meets its current schedule for approving the proposed standard.

And Bob Egan, an analyst at TowerGroup, said he thinks security concerns will continue to haunt Wi-Fi networks and limit their growth, particularly among large companies. "WLANs have had a very hype-driven ramp-up in homes, hot spots and municipal networks, and only certain parts of the business," Egan said.

At some companies, WLANs have become so commonplace that many workers never need to use wired connections anymore. For example, about 5,000 workers at Intel's Jones Farm office campus in Oregon rely on a WLAN "for mission-critical uses and use it as their primary network," said Brian Tucker, Intel's mobile marketing manager. "The majority do fine on wireless."

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Intel is working with Cisco Systems to promote next-generation uses for WLANs, and the chip maker has announced plans to release a Centrino mobile chip with 802.11n support in the first half of 2007, without waiting for the IEEE to approve the standard. But Tucker acknowledged that WLANs are "not a replacement for Ethernet across all users." He cited large number-crunching applications as one area where wireless networks fall short.

Roger Daniel, director of network infrastructure at North Carolina Central University, said the school uses a large wireless mesh network for applications such as transmitting video feeds to end users. It also is starting to test voice over Wi-Fi.

But, Daniel said, "Wi-Fi will never replace our wired LAN, and we're taking Gigabit Ethernet to each desktop, so 100 or more megabits over wireless doesn't mean that much by comparison." Wi-Fi's primary value, he added, is that it provides "anytime access" to data and serves as "a cost- effective way of extending the LAN to the users."

Nurses at WakeMed Health & Hospitals in North Carolina, could benefit from having dual-mode phones, which would be easier to carry than the separate voice-over-Wi-Fi handsets and cellular phones now used by about 500 medical workers, said John Tuman, director of network services at WakeMed.

Tuman also wants to use RFID tags to keep track of medical equipment and transmit the data generated by the tags via his Wi-Fi network. But the dual-mode and RFID technologies are just wish-list items for now, he said.

Wireless becomes big LAN on campus

Much of the pressure to expand the uses of wireless LANs is coming from consumers who have grown accustomed to using free Wi-Fi hot spots, especially college students who want access to technology as they move from their dormitories to classrooms and nearby coffee shops.

"We have to have Wi-Fi as a university, or the students complain," said Roger Daniel, director of network infrastructure at North Carolina Central University. To support its 8,000 students, the school has installed about 300 wireless access points indoors and another 20 outdoors in a ruggedized 802.11 mesh network.

"There's big demand for Wi-Fi, partly from [users of] the new gadgets -- the Palms and Pocket PCs and more," Daniel said. In addition, the university is using its Wi-Fi network to pump video feeds to end users and to receive images from security cameras that are located in remote areas where it would be arduous to run wired connections.

Daniel said that the university is testing voice over Wi-Fi and that dual-mode handsets likely will become a technology that warrants investigation within the next two years. "We sit in Research Triangle Park, with Duke, Chapel Hill and other universities nearby, so pretty much we have to keep up with the Joneses," he noted.

The Alamo Community College District (ACCD), a group of five colleges in San Antonio, has deployed 477 access points to serve about 50,000 students and 6,000 staff members, said Arne Saustrup, the district's IT operations manager.

Going forward, "the WLAN will be standard infrastructure in all ACCD buildings," Saustrup said. He added that he expects "rapid growth" in the number of wireless users over the next two years and that the district eventually will support dual-mode phones. "We see Wi-Fi voice as a collateral benefit [for users]," Saustrup said.

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Dual-Mode phones nourish food distributor's sales

At Anthony Marano, sales personnel serve a dual role as buyers of the fruit and produce it distributes. And they now use dual-mode mobile phones, which work on both a wireless LAN inside the company's Chicago facility and a Cingular Wireless cellular network outside the building.

The phones and the network underpinnings for the dual-mode technology have been used in full production mode by about 50 employees for the past 18 months, said Chris Nowak, Marano's IT director. The wireless system is based on trial technology from three vendors: phone maker Motorola; Avaya, which supplied switching equipment; and Proxim Wireless, which provided the wireless access points and related software.

Workers equipped with the phones can walk around Marano's 400,000-square-foot warehouse to check on produce shipments and connect to the company's WLAN through 72 access points. If they need to go outside, they can continue talking over the cellular network, according to Nowak.

"No one wants to charge two batteries, have two voice passwords, two voice mail systems and two telephone numbers," he said.

The handoff between the networks is "just an insignificant blip," Nowak said. And, he claimed, "the sound quality is better than on desk phones."

Marano's sales have increased 15% since the dual-mode technology was deployed, without any increase in the number of sales workers, Nowak said. He cited the addition of the phones as the main reason for the sales growth.

But there is room for improvement in the handset, Nowak added. He said a better display could enable workers to use their phones to view photo­graphs of produce being offered for sale by growers. Currently, growers can send images, but buyers must go to a PC to look at the pictures.

Also, Nowak said he could double the number of users if the price of the dual-mode phones dropped substantially below the current cost of US$600 per handset.

Kevin Goulet, director of product management at Motorola's enterprise mobility solutions group, wouldn't disclose any details about the new dual-mode handset that the company is developing. But Goulet said he thinks Nowak will be happy with the phone's price and expanded capabilities.

Nowak said he expects dual-mode technology to grow only more valuable for business users. "Everyone is going to have this technology," he said. "We're doing great on it, and we're not even a technology company. We just sell fruits and vegetables. If we figured it out, others can."