IBM hints at taking Wi-Fi access national in US

As the presence of IEEE 802.11x access points increases, IBM and others are beginning to talk about the creation of a single, virtual wireless LAN with seamless coverage across North America.

          As the presence of IEEE 802.11x access points increases in airports, restaurants, hotels, homes, corporate campuses, and other public access locations, IBM and others are beginning to talk about the creation of a single, virtual WLAN (wireless LAN) with seamless coverage across North America.

          Pioneer Consulting, a Boston-based research organisation used by IBM to promote the concept of a national network, released late last month a report titled Wireless Internet Access Over Unlicensed Spectrum: An Alternative to 3G Mobile Data Networks. The report predicts the number of hot spot sites will grow from about 5000 today to 151,000 sites by 2008.

          Massive growth and "disorganisation" creates a "tremendous opportunity for IBM [services]. We are very interested in this," says Dan Papes, vice president of wireless services, a unit of IBM Global Services in Somers, New York. "Some group will have to put this together, and they will need an organisation to manage it to make it scalable and reliable."

          "It is a concept we are extremely interested in," Papes adds.

          Papes predicts business users and consumers anywhere in North America with a significant population eventually will have predictable, ubiquitous access to high-speed WLAN for data and for voice over IP as well.

          "If the cellular carriers don't provide this service, they have a problem. Especially with voice over 802.11, they will have a challenge," Papes says.

          At the same time, Papes says that the current model, with dozens of smaller companies such as Boingo Wireless and Gric Communications supplying hot-spot coverage to individual locations and aggregators, will not survive.

          "Aggregators are not big enough to do this. The scope and scale requires a much deeper-pocketed organisation than Boingo," Papes says.

          An executive at Boingo Wireless, in Santa Monica, California. called that "conventional thinking" and compared Wi-Fi deployments to the growth of the wired internet.

          "The industry itself has come to terms with the fact that roaming is essential, from subnet to subnet, to make it accessible for Fortune 500 companies. The industry is moving toward that direction without a single central aggregator. Do you need one central brand like IBM? I don't think so," says Christian Gunning, director of product management at Boingo.

          For its part IBM is currently rolling out thousands of WLANs across corporate campuses.

          "Some customers just want it on their campus. Others are saying, 'Wouldn't it be great if there was some national network?' It seems so obvious that it should be this way," Papes says.

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