Stats Watch: Wi-Fi shows its charms

The temperature of a technology can usually be gauged by having a shufty at who's putting money and energy into it. On that basis, Wi-Fi is a trifle warm now that Toshiba, HP and Microsoft have come to the party.

The temperature of a technology can usually be gauged by having a shufty at who’s putting money and energy into it. On that basis, Wi-Fi is a trifle warm now that Toshiba, HP and Microsoft have come to the party. The trio are just the latest victims to the wireless networking charms of Wi-Fi, known to standards-designers as 802.11b, which uses “hotspots” – access points into which users wielding portable devices can tap to gain access to the internet and email.

HP has given Wi-Fi a good old kick. US hotels, airports and the like will get wireless internet access for staff and the public. Users will choose their own providers but HP will recommend its own hardware, Cisco network access points (Lucent, Nortel and, yes, Microsoft are among others also in the race) and third-party software. Toshiba, meanwhile, is effectively to become a national ISP in the US as it readies Itsumo – Japanese for always – a set of products and services that that use Wi-Fi to carry data and voice over IP across W-Fi and third-generation cellular networks. IBM and Intel, it should be added, are also considering a US-wide Wi-Fi network.

What’s happening locally? Alongside its wideband CDMA cellular trials, Walker Wireless has promised Wi-Fi access points at Auckland airport and perhaps Starbucks cafes. CityLink in Wellington plans much the same in the capital, to complement its existing metropolitan ethernet fibre network.

No one appears quite sure just how users – casual and dedicated – will be charged for using the service, and reports of people freely tapping into wireless corporate networks overseas are widespread. But local companies appear to be taking the build-it-and-they-will-come approach. IDC reports a chart-topping 122.6% increase in the number of New Zealand respondents to its regular technology survey that said they had implemented a wireless LAN (up from about 9% to nearly 20%).

Most have hopefully left the relatively weak WEP security standard behind. Those such as Cisco’s Tim Hemingway hope they have opted for tougher standards such as Cisco’s LEAP or “encrypted tunnels” – a kind of virtual private wireless network. Hemingway sees the future as a range of devices such as laptops, handhelds and phones that incorporate multimode network cards – able to log into whichever flavour of 802.11 (as well as “b” there are “a” and “g” varieties) or cellular network is around, or uncongested.

Some words of caution. Wi-Fi only has a range of about 100m, though this can be boosted. It works in the relatively free-for-all 2.4GHz spectrum band. It has a theoretical maximum speed of 11Mbit/s, though this seems to be rarely achieved. Sydney-based telecomms analyst Paul Budde says user numbers in this country are in the hundreds, while in Australia, which he estimates has a dozen such networks, involves “several thousand interested individuals”. Budde notes the very low cost of entry into the market and sees it as ideal for niche markets such as travellers. He says it is not suitable for large-scale deployment, the majority of wireless broadband to be delivered by satellite.

Submissions to an Australian communications committee generally agree.

Boosterers, warchalkers email Broatch.

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