Bird on a Wireless

Bird on a Wireless

The first victim of this technology will be the wireless hot spot market in which you can grab a burger at McDonald's, a coffee at Gloria Jeans or a stale cucumber sandwich at the airport and simultaneously jump on a network.

Just how connected do you want to be?

The industry will be tireless about wireless this year. It will be the mantra of technology salesmen and consultants just as the Internet was when they promised our troubles would be solved by e-commerce. That's when they began, of course, but at least Tim Berners-Lee picked up a knighthood in the New Year's honours list for inventing it.

It is hard to imagine whose shoulder might be touched with the royal sword for wireless technology given much of its value and benefit is far from clear even though the hyperbole machine cranks out predictions of Wi-Fi spending growth faster than England's rugby team kicks points. Such bravado is common in the technology game but often hides insecurity.

A senior executive of a blue-chip vendor rang the other day to confess their management and sales team were struggling to understand the value of wireless from the customer's perspective. Brushing off jokes about client concerns being a New Year's resolution, the executive said: "We're seeing stellar predictions from the likes of Forrester and IDC but struggling to come to terms with where this growth is supposed to come from. There is a scarcity of documented (local) pilot projects and case studies that actually prove the value of wireless technology, or show how it is measured."

Wireless technologies cover a lot of ground, of course. The hottest areas are wireless local area networks (WLAN), radio frequency identity chips (RFID) and wireless broadband services. No self-respecting IT salesman will end a call in 2004 without canvassing at least one of these topics.

In the excitement stakes, there is little to split RFID and wireless broadband. Each is different in terms of their value proposition, and adoption presents varying opportunities and risks.

By comparison, WLAN is ho-hum. The idea of spending money so colleagues can stay connected while walking around the office with a laptop under their arm is underwhelming to say the least. It smacks of good material for an episode of The Office. Yet, analyst companies say we will see substantial spending in this arena in 2004 because improved standards are making the security experts a little less paranoid about the technology.

Similar fears around security will be aired when the long-awaited iBurst technology metaphorically bursts onto the scene in the next couple of months as Personal Broadband Services and Unwired go head-to-head in the emerging market of wireless broadband services.

Their customers will be able to access remote broadband connection within a 30km radius - a quantum leap from the 30m access offered by standard WLAN hubs. It will essentially provide our cities with a high-speed, always-on nirvana. A third company, Adelaide-based Mawson Lakes Online, will offer a similar service in its hometown.

Commercial wireless broadband has been around for a few months. New Zealand firm Whoosh began offering an Auckland service last October. It is thought to be the first out of the blocks in the Asia-Pacific, although there have been some sizeable trials in South Korea.

The first victim of this technology will be the wireless hot spot market in which you can grab a burger at McDonald's, a coffee at Gloria Jeans or a stale cucumber sandwich at the airport and simultaneously jump on a network.

Hot spots appear to be a wonderful solution but can be a pain. You can end up with numerous charges on your credit card from the different suppliers - Azure, SkyNetGlobal, Zone, Optus and Telstra - who service a variety of locations at different rates. When the time comes to reconcile these bills, especially if you have used providers overseas, you wonder why it was so important to be online in a cafe anyway.

The grander-scale service, whose pricing is promised to be only slightly higher than a conventional cable subscription, makes more sense. However, it would be one more service for an IT department to support. Senior executives, especially those whose homes cannot receive broadband coverage, are likely to lead the adoption charge in a similar way to their demands to support data connections for their flash, new mobile phones that have e-mail access.

Doubting Thomases

Not everyone is convinced wireless broadband will take off. One sceptic is senior Telstra executive Bruce Atkinson, who says Telstra would provide a competitive service if demand existed. "I doubt anyone wants broadband access in a local park or in the back of a taxi," he says. "We will be watching the market's progress. If customers want this type of service, then it is our job to be there. However, our priority will be improving access to broadband services in early 2004. We'll hit an additional 500,000 customers."

Principal analyst at Gartner Nick Ingelbrecht is more optimistic but not much. "There is a lot of talk about wireless, but nothing is proven. The industry is very excited but buyers should not forget this is untested territory. The data speeds will be slightly slower than ADSL, which is far and above what is offered on cellular networks.

"A large amount of investment and infrastructure is going in. Unwired claims it will have 70 base stations by March to provide its service.

"There will be some demand for this service from people frustrated they cannot get an ADSL or cable connection at home, as the service should be cheaper than satellite. I am not so sure about business adoption. That might be slower."

Such conservatism is nowhere to be seen for the other hot wireless arena, RFID chips. The vendor community is gleefully quoting IDC predictions of growth and establishing strategic partnerships to provide solutions for the retail and transportation sectors.

IDC claims RFID spending will bounce from $US91.5 million last year to $US1.3 billion by 2008 in the US alone - there don't appear to be any local figures. Its report says momentum has been created by demands from the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, and the US Defence Department that all suppliers put RFID tags on their goods.

However, it will take more than a couple of memos from Wal-Mart and the Pentagon to change the rest of the world, even though Americans might struggle to accept that. And besides, $US1.3 billion isn't a lot of money in the scheme of things.

The technology is splitting into two distinct wireless pieces. RFID chips are being placed on pallets and used to identify their contents in the warehouse, alleviating the costly exercise of having staff running all over the place looking for a missing box. A second part of the equation is the lesser-known chip that holds a so-called Electronic Product Code (EPC) - a unique identifier for individual items. It was first unveiled by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) last year to replace the ubiquitous barcode that was devised in the 70s.

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