Wireless reach spreads apace

If our ears were tuned to the right frequencies, we'd hear the airwaves buzzing with new wireless networks. Along the motorway from Auckland's North Shore to the eastern suburbs, you'll encounter a score or more Wi-Fi networks - if you have the necessary snooping gear.

If our ears were tuned to the right frequencies, we’d hear the airwaves buzzing with new wireless networks. Along the motorway from Auckland’s North Shore to the eastern suburbs, you’ll encounter a score or more Wi-Fi networks – if you have the necessary snooping gear. And those are just the private networks; public ones are popping up in cafes and bars around the inner city, and others with ambitions to cover great swathes of the country are being implemented.

With all this activity, there’s a certain amount of “our network is better than yours” talk. And there’s plenty of confusion as to which technology really is superior. The cellular network operators – Telecom and Vodafone – used to have the field pretty much to themselves, and can claim wide coverage. But Wi-Fi networks – based on the IEEE’s 802.11 standard (which comes in a confusing array of speeds and reaches) – are beginning to trespass in cellular territory.

One suspects the very proliferation of technologies and networks is part of the cause for the apparent stalling of the cellular network roll-out plans of EcoNet. Remember EcoNet? Two years ago this month the colourfully named Tex Edwards was the talk of the telecomms community. Everyone from communications minister Paul Swain to TUANZ boss Ernie Newman was congratulating him on his plans to build the country’s third cellular network using spectrum set aside by the government for Maori interests. That’s about the last anyone heard from Tex and, unless he pops up again soon, TelstraClear will beat him to the punch with a 3G cellular network it plans to roll out. (Hopefully they’ve checked that there is customer demand.)

There is, after all, just a finite market. But do we really know how big it is? When we think wireless networks, there are two obvious applications: voice and internet access. The signs are, though, that there’s an explosion of other mobile data applications about to go off. Those at the Wireless Data Forum conference in Auckland last week heard about some. Cookie Time, a Christchurch biscuit maker, is getting rapid payback from putting mobile sales data collection devices in the hands of its distributors. When it came to implementing the system, software choice was a more pressing issue than which network to use, says IT manager Chris White. Even so, having choice at all says something for how the wireless landscape is changing.

Doesburg is Computerworld's editor.

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