It's hard to imagine a much higher-powered group of companies than the one theTimes reported as having been involved in "Project Rainbow" over the past eight months. Intel, IBM, AT&T Wireless, Verizon and Cingular, along with other companies not named, have been working in secret to put together a plan to provide 802.11-based wireless "hot spot" service in public spaces such as airports. Users would be able to use these 802.11 sites and low-speed cellular for Internet access under a unified billing plan.
Intel apparently is urging on the effort as part of its plan to push 802.11 quite aggressively. It said a while ago that its plan is to have 20 million portable computers 802.11-enabled in 2003, expanding to a total of 60 million portable and desktop computers by the end of 2004. Things are rosy in the 802.11 world; theTimes reports that 7 million 802.11 cards were sold last year.
Even without the help of Project Rainbow, 802.11 is popping up all over the place. I'm writing this column sitting in a hotel room on an island at the southern tip of Korea, with free in-room ethernet-based internet connections, exchanging email with a colleague sitting a few hundred miles north in Seoul in a bar with free 802.11-based internet service. We just finished a week of intense activity at the Internet Engineering Task Force meeting in Yokohama, where there were more than 1400 people using the 802.11 network. There also was experimental 802.11-based internet service in the first-class car of the train running from the Tokyo airport to Yokohama.
One of the more interesting parts of this story is the involvement of three large cellular telephone companies. It was not too long ago that some of these same companies were getting ready to spend billions of dollars to acquire licences for radio spectrum to support the rollout of 2.5G and 3G cellular technology to provide high-speed data services to cellphones. It might be that these wireless companies think they can have their cake and eat it too by supporting cellular and 802.11 technologies, but I suspect that the result will come down mostly in favour of 802.11.
It might be the case that 802.11 is not the "best" way to provide wireless internet service; 3G cellular might give better coverage and better control of quality of service but, as Bob Braden, a long-term internet geek, said, the lesson of the internet is that efficiency is not the primary consideration. Ability to grow and adapt to changing requirements is the primary consideration. 802.11 has shown itself ready to do this.
Disclaimer: Harvard knows how to grow, and occasionally adapt, but has expressed no opinion on this topic.Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.