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Action in the Air

The momentum of wireless in the enterprise will increase substantially with the pending 802.11n specification. Add in the Wi-Max factor and advances in RFID, and there are opportunities and challenges everywhere in locations ranging from sporting arenas to rail yards.


May 1, 2007  


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Not long ago only a trickle of organizations wirelessly-enabled even a small portion of their overall operations. More sophisticated technology and the advent of security standards such as IEEE 802.11i that afford protection comparable to wired networks are turning that trickle into a stream.

Other emerging trends and standards like Wi-Max and 802.11n promise to swell the wireless flow to the enterprise.

The wireless enterprise momentum is expected to grow substantially with the pending 802.11n specification. It promises throughputs up to six times greater than 802.11 a/g and 30 times more than the 802.11b. Coverage is also expanded with an anticipated fourfold rise in range.

Gregory Hinds, field sales engineer with structured cabling vendor Ortronics/Legrand, declares 802.11n will be a “whole other ball game” because it will usher in Multiple In, Multiple Out or (MIMO), radio technology that allows for access points (APs) with multiple radios and antennas. It permits multiple signals to go in and out simultaneously thereby increasing throughput.

The n standard will go well beyond the 54 Mbps capacity afforded by 802.11 a/g, says Hinds. He says some are projecting as high as 300 Mbps.

The standard was not ratified last summer as the industry had hoped. It is now forecast to arrive no earlier than the third quarter of 2008. Hinds says that four or five drafts are competing to become the standard.

According to John Schmidt, senior product manager, business development for ADC Telecommunications Inc.’s TrueNet structured cabling systems, coverage and capacity are the big knocks against wireless.

He expects the n standard will go a long way to resolving those issues. The problem currently is the 54 Mbps yielded by a and g are shared by however many are using the system.

“If I have 10 people accessing a single radio, I’m dividing that 54 Mbps by that number of people,” says Schmidt. “By contrast, your dedicated hard line to one person is probably providing a minimum of 100 Mbps.

“So anything you can do within the wireless space to improve the coverage and capacity is going to greatly increase the adoption.”

Even with the n standard, Brad Meeks, wireless product line manager for Belden, doubts capacity will rise much above 100 Mbps and questions whether that will be nearly enough for the true enterprise environment. He believes most medium to large organizations will find it not even close to the bandwidth needed.

“To the extent you increase the bandwidth through the n standard you could increase the number of businesses that would go all wireless,” he says. “But it is still going to be the bottom tier. For the middle and top tier enterprises, it’s just not going to be sufficient.”

A parallel development to Wi-Fi 802.11 is the Wi-Max 802.16 protocol. While Wi-Fi is associated with wireless LANs and shorter distances in enclosed buildings, Wi-Max applies to longer distances outdoors through wide area networks.

Wi-Max interoperability became feasible with the ratification of the 802.16 protocol in July 2004. Product vendors are starting to ensure their Wi-Max offerings are compatible with others. Wireless LAN vendors are watching Wi-Max closely to see if they should jump in.

Kevin Restivo, an analyst with Toronto-based telecommunications consulting and market research firm the Seaboard Group, says everyone has their hopes pinned on the Wi-Fi 802.11n standard and Wi-Max as well. But while there has been a lot of talk surrounding Wi-Max, he does not see much action yet.

Wi-Max is a wireless broadband application that could be suited for both homes and businesses, he says. It is a candidate for the wireless enterprise because its throughput of 70 Mbps at distances of up to 113 kilometres. It is also important to be aware of Wi-Max because it holds the prospect of lowering connectivity costs in future.

“You can’t really ignore it when you are talking about the wireless enterprise because there is so much hype about it right now and increasing vendor support behind it,” says Restivo.

What is spurring Wi-Fi is that virtually every new laptop computer has the capability built into the chip. A couple of years ago, Intel Corp. introduced Centrino, a processing chip with Wi-Fi radio for portable computers. All this has increased the mobility of office workers and heightened the desire for wireless connectivity.

A white paper on the Five Myths of Wireless Networks released recently by Intel Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. says the shipment of notebook computers has now surpassed desktops.

An estimated 95% of these notebooks have embedded Wi-Fi. Notebooks in the enterprise are expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 18% from 2005 to 2010, states the paper, while comparable growth over the same period for desktops is pegged at only 3%.

The sudden influx of Wi-Fi armed notebooks into offices had some dire consequences for many companies, says Stan Schatt, vice president of broadband and wireless networks with market research firm ABI Research based in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

It led to de-facto Wi-Fi networks springing up everywhere and exposing the systems and data in the main wired networks. It forced many companies to establish wireless policies and secure wireless networks to control the proliferation.

Schmidt believes Wi-Max has been impeded somewhat by the fact that similar Wi-Max capabilities have not yet been built into laptops. However, he acknowledges Intel is working on it.

In fact, late last year Intel unveiled its first mobile Wi-Max baseband chip. Combining this with its earlier developed single-chip, multi-band Wi-Max/Wi-Fi radio, it demonstrated a chipset called the Intel Wi-Max Connection 2300. Intel plans to test the product in both card and module forms late this year.

Meanwhile, Restivo warns that “if you’re a cable installer and you haven’t heard of Wi-Max, you’re in trouble.”

Wi-Max is regarded as a future standard for cheap, long-range broadband access, he says. It is also seen as an inexpensive means of bridging that last mile between the service provider and homes or businesses.

Restivo concedes that it is still a fledging standard, but it is definitely something cable installers should know about simply because the industry is getting behind it in a big way.

Wireless is not just a plug-and-play technology, says Hinds.

To attain the level of security necessary for users takes an understanding of IP technology, networking, and firewalls among other things. Education is a vital step for a lot of different contractors.

“We see a lot of partnerships between cable companies that install the cable, the access points, and get everything rack mounted and ready and more knowledgeable systems integrators that do the back-end configurations,” says Hinds. “We also see contractors trying to jump into it as well.”

Some contractors get in over their head and summon integration companies for assistance. He says Ortronics actually recommends those partnerships and more training for contractors in both wireless and networks.

Top VARs of ADC embrace wireless technology, and view it as an opportunity to provide additional services, says Schmidt.Even if they are unable to resell wireless APs in certain installations, some still benefit from running additional cable drops to locations where APs will be installed. It makes final installation easy for the end user because the network connectivity is already there.

Belden already engaged a global network of VARs it calls certified systems vendors (CSVs) trained to install the Belden structured cabling system. Meeks says it made sense with that kind of network to move into the wireless LAN arena than other wireless ventures.

A lot of cabling contractors are standing on the wireless sidelines, he says. They may run the cable and hang the APs, but that is where a lot of them stop. They are not in the wireless game because it is so expensive and complex and requires so much e
xpertise and training.

“Wireless schools can charge $4,000 to $5,000 per person to learn how to operate just one system. And then you are committed to that system because that is what you know and have been trained on and spent thousands of dollars on.”

Meeks says Belden has gone through numerous interviews trying to hire qualified people with RF and wireless expertise. But they are scarce and expensive.

“I can’t overemphasize the complexity and commitment necessary for a cabling contractor to start to get into wireless.”

It will not be a wireless tsunami that destroys hard-wired infrastructures. Wireless LANs are likely to piggyback on wired installations for well into the foreseeable future.

“Some of my sales people fear wireless is replacing them because it is becoming more ubiquitous,” says Hinds. “I have users though who just consider it an overlay. It won’t ever replace copper cable or fibre optics for that matter simply because the throughput is never quite going to be there.”

Then again, buildings that house small firms with few employees could be constructed as all wireless structures to take advantage of the capital cost savings.

Schatt says small branch offices could eventually go all wireless.

But there is insufficient bandwidth from wireless for large or even medium-sized enterprises to give up cabling. Moreover, owners of large commercial office towers have to build them to the needs of average tenants that invariably demand cabling.

However, opportunities for cabling contractors are growing in existing buildings where wiring modifications are necessary to accommodate occupants making some move to wireless. Still, some experts say conventional cabling contractors have been slow to respond.

“Commercial construction com-panies are conservative,” says Schatt. “They are used to putting in structured cabling and suddenly we are asking them to put in these wireless devices. They have been slow to adjust, but they are starting to do it.”

It is not just commercial office buildings that are on the crest of the wireless wave. It is prominent in hospitals, schools, hotels, warehouses, malls and even sports stadiums and arenas.

The invasion of wireless to sports facilities at first surprised Schmidt. He did not understand why since fans were not using laptops while watching games. But sports writers certainly were.

“Primarily the wireless infrastructure is for the sports reporters so they can file live updates to their organizations’ Web sites,” he says. One such installation is currently going on now in Montreal at the Bell Centre, home of the NHL Montreal Canadiens that seats up to 21,273 hockey fans.

It will be equipped with a Nortel wireless high-speed network for advanced multimedia applications including Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), secure wireless access anywhere in the facility, and remote access for off-site staff.

The media had been requesting reliable wireless Internet access for faster filing of stories.

Writers and photographers in the press gallery, which accommodates up to 300 media, will be able to instantaneously exchange, upload and update files, resulting in more up-to-the-minute event coverage.

But a more compelling customer-service, business case is going cashless. Patrons have been only able to buy food, drink, souvenirs, and hockey sweaters at concession stands with cash. After the wireless installation, they will be able to use credit, debit cards, or other forms of electronic payment. This promises to speed concession service, while increasing consumption and revenues.

There had been a few upgrades to the Nortel CS 1000 phone system that had been installed 10 years ago when the Centre was built. But the data network had not evolved, says Brian Cann, applications specialist with Nortel. No plan was in place for future data requirements.

A wireless approach was evident from the outset. Conduit in most areas was already packed with cables. Additional wiring would have to be mounted in visible spaces.

Wireless would also avoid the considerable cost of having to run new wiring to every cash register.

The ubiquity of wireless coverage also provided great flexibility in concession placement.

This was important for rock concerts or other events. Cash registers with eight-hour battery packs could be set on tables in mid-corridor or other convenient locations and immediately accept any form of electronic payment as well.

The conversion calls for the replacement of the entire network infrastructure with a new high-performance, multi-gigabit wired network. In most cases, new switches will be added to the existing mix of copper and fibre optic cable, which will be left intact. In a few areas, more fibre optic cable will be introduced to form a solid backbone.

Once the wired network is complete, the wireless antenna or access points (APs) will be installed to tap power from the wired infrastructure.

Pinpointing the optimal locations and number of APs necessary poses an unusual challenge in a large arena like the Bell Centre.

Unlike traditional square office buildings, there are lots of round parts in a heavily concentre structure with countless nooks, crannies and dark spots.

Bell Canada was summoned to survey the entire facility and map the APs to assure adequate coverage.

Nortel technology is also designed to compensate for outages, says Cann. If an antenna is lost or the cable is cut or defective in a location with a number of concession stands, other nearby APs will automatically detect that and increase their radio signals to cover any gap.

Most of the onsite work is scheduled around hockey games and other events to avoid inconveniencing spectators. Cann says bridges are built between the old and new wired networks as construction moves along from floor to floor so they can communicate with each other and avert any power losses.

Nowhere does the phrase ‘the show must go on’ apply more than in the Bell Centre, he says.

“You can’t have the phone or the network not working while you have 20,000 screaming fans watching a game.”

The entire installation is due for completion in late summer in time for the next hockey season. Several other benefits will accrue from the move to a wireless LAN.

In the luxury private boxes, food and drink is catered, but orders have to be written on paper. It will not be long before orders will be punched in and credit cards scanned on wireless PDAs.

As well, owners or renters of private boxes like to hold meetings, customer presentations or press conferences prior to events. Wireless access will allow them to better demonstrate their products or services visually.

Many performers in rock bands who travel most of the year use an IP phone service instead of cellular phones which may not provide coverage in certain regions, says Cann. So they require Internet access wherever they perform.

Two Nortel VPN routers will secure both the wired and wireless networks with one providing redundancy, says Cann.

If one fails or is taken off line, the other is automatically activated. The system distinguishes users whether staff, media or others to prevent unauthorized entry to applications.

“Through the capabilities of our wireless LAN portfolio, we are able to say this person is only a guest user so he only has access to the Internet and nothing else. He doesn’t have access to anything internal,” adds Cann. “If it is someone we don’t recognize, he gets only access to the Internet or no access at all.”

Ron Glen is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He can be reached via e-mail at rglen@rogers.com.

HOSPITALS NOW WIRELESS HOTBEDS

Hospitals are going heavily into wireless with all kinds of devices. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are attached to many large expensive pieces of equipment like dialysis machines to locate them.

It saves huge amounts of time staff take trying
to find misplaced equipment in a vast expanse of hospital corridors, rooms and closets. Gregory Hinds of Ortronics/Legrand says studies show high ROI for those kinds of RFID investments.

John Schmidt of ADC Telecommunications Inc. maintains personal digital assistants (PDAs) will soon render barely legible, handwritten doctors’ charts obsolete. Once patient information is typed in, it can be fed into databases where it can be tracked, monitored and verified.

As an example, Vocera Communications Inc. produces wireless devices that doctors can wear and operate without using their hands to communicate with staff in various parts of a hospital. It is an important benefit after they have scrubbed up for operations.

Brad Meeks, wireless product line manager at Belden, which also offers a wireless LAN system, says hospital IT departments have been getting complaints from doctors that they are losing the Vocera signals when walking around the hospital. It means they have to use their hands to log back into the service and reconnect.

“When you get into large spaces like hospitals, warehouses, hotels and other places, maintaining connectivity is important,” he says.. There is a lot of design criteria and complexity when you get into big deployments of 50, 60, or 100 plus APs.”

AT J.J. BARNICKE, WIRELESS IS SHRINKING THE SALES CYCLE

For national commercial realtor J.J. Barnicke Limited the vital action occurs in the field through its more than 350 sales agents and upwards of two dozen field researchers.

Seven years ago, the firm equipped this mobile workforce with interactive voice and data wireless handsets that could retrieve and upload data instantly to its regional databases, as well as download timely information to agents engaged in discussions with clients. It standardized on the BlackBerry from Research In Motion (RIM).

Even then, the company recognized that e-mail was mission critical, says Mario Kovacevic, Vice President, Information Technology and E-business with J.J. Barnicke. Just pushing e-mail out to the field securely similar to its deployment at office desktops could yield a substantial competitive edge.

Research personnel often drive around collecting and updating information on commercial properties.

They may validate that a building under construction is now complete, and has certain distinctive characteristics. They may also learn the square foot price has dropped by a few dollars on a particular property. All this information can be fed immediately from the BlackBerry into a company database.

Sales agents will take clients on tours of buildings that meet their requirements. In preparation for these tours, agents will compile reports that may contain documents on 10 different prospective buildings, which the agent can refer to in onsite deliberations with clients.

On the tour, the client may notice a building that is not one of the 10 and ask the agent for some facts on it. The agent can pull down information on that building on the fly from the company database over his BlackBerry. It may be up-to-date data garnered from the research staff.

Agents can also provide much better qualitative information faster, says Kovacevic. A client looking for a warehouse may first mention some key necessary criteria while touring facilities with the agent. The agent can immediately tap into the database for the pertinent information instead of having to tell the client he will get back to him on that later.

“We are heavily a sales driven organization and the immediate thing we saw was the ability to improve communication lags between the time somebody would have sent you a message and your response,” says Kovacevic.

“In particular, we saw e-mail had a dramatic impact on our sales team being able to address customer needs much sooner than they otherwise would if they had to run back to a desktop machine. It was certainly measurable in the context of time removal from a sales cycle.”

Security was a big concern for the company. It had a lot of competitive, sensitive information in its systems and databases that by opening up to its mobile workforce could be left exposed. But RIM stepped forward with an “out of the box” acceptable security approach that was a principal reason for standardizing on the BlackBerry.

This permitted J.J. Barnicke to concentrate on the business-critical functions. According to Kovacevic, the company did not have the staff to dedicate to a lengthy security study on modifying its conventional security. If it had been forced to deal with the security issue independently, he estimates its wireless movement would have been set back months or even years.

In those early days, carrier coverage on wireless networks was inconsistent from one locale to another with spots where signals faded or were lost. Even in the greater Toronto area, the company would have to carefully select carriers to avoid transmission disruptions in areas where it was doing considerable business.

Kovacevic says it has only been within the last three years that network coverage has ceased to be an issue.

He credits the improved coverage to fundamental shifts in carrier technology with the move to higher performance GSM/GPRS networks. Those changes along with the advent of 3G EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) service and EVDO (Evolution Data Optimized) network service has allowed the company to take its wireless business operations to the next level.

In the early days, the company kept data transmissions to the BlackBerries confined to e-mails and attachments. Attempting to push through larger data packets with building photos and other supplementary data would cause unacceptable delays.

Those limitations have lifted with the newer technologies like GSM/GPRS, EDGE and EVDO services that yield higher throughputs at DSL grade speeds.

The data sets that agents actively retrieve from company databases or are pushed down to them can contain building photos, aerial shots, maps or other relevant property information.

With newer standards and further advances on the horizon, Kovacevic believes the wireless future has only really begun.

He envisions wireless evolving to a fully robust, larger format, portable notebook experience

“We see pushing complex data from our central locations down to not only BlackBerries, but full-blown portable machines in the field for complete access to anything people would otherwise enjoy at the luxury of their desk in the office.”

CN TURNS TO RFID TO KEEP TABS ON VALUABLE ASSETS

Canadian National Railway (CN) turned to tracking and managing valuable assets wirelessly with a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) installation last September at its largest intermodal terminal in Brampton, Ont. It allows the company to more accurately control incoming and outgoing truck chassis, yielding better supply chain efficiency, productivity and cost savings.

The terminal is for offloading containers from trucks to trains and vice versa. Containers move in and out of the facility daily on truck chassis including those in CN’s fleet. (CN refers to the trailers that hold containers in a tractor trailer rig as chassis.) In Brampton alone, CN has 1,700 chassis in its fleet worth upwards of $24,000 apiece.

“You can imagine at $24,000 apiece you want to know where these chassis are not only because they are valuable, but their absence means you can’t bring a container into the yard,” says Andrew Mitchell, director of wireless solutions, Bell Canada. “Now you have cargo you can’t move because you don’t know where the chassis is.”

Bell Canada served as systems integrator on the project. It deployed RFID readers, mobile computers and cargo tags from Symbol Technologies Inc. The readers were upgraded to withstand the Canadian climate. Bell also used RFID middleware from Shipcom Wireless.

This was the first RFID installation that Bell designed and delivered for an intermodal terminal. It will not be the last. CN plans to ext
end the RFID application to other similar terminals in Canada.

RFID technology is well suited to asset management whether a chassis, container or equipment in a manufacturing plant, says Mitchell. The reason is the equipment does not have to be within sight of whoever is responsible for it. The readers accurately identify assets from the signals emitted from their tags. Those reads also reveal the location of the asset and the precise time of identification.

The intermodal yard at Brampton has nine entry/exit lanes. Trucks entering or leaving the yard have to drive through these lanes. RFID readers are mounted on islands in the middle of the lanes. They pick up identification numbers relayed by the RFID tags affixed to the chassis of the passing trucks.

The readers are fitted on island kiosks which previously housed employees who would jot down information on the chassis moving through the lanes. But they frequently got the information wrong so this manual procedure was vulnerable to errors.

For the RFID installation, conduit and cables were run to the kiosks to supply the necessary power.

Mitchell says it was more cost effective to use cables than to overlay a wireless network to the existing systems infrastructure. The wireless part of the project consisted entirely of the radio connectivity between readers and tags.

The RFID readily and positively identifies the chassis the moment it passes the reader, he says. It also shows the time the chassis went by and reveals the yard it entered. It discloses similar information when the chassis leaves the yard.

The system also helps CN determine whether a chassis requires regular preventative maintenance. The identity of a chassis entering a yard can be checked against a preventative maintenance database that may indicate that chassis is due for that inspection so the chassis can be retained in the yard and readied for maintenance.

It also adds a significant measure of security by flagging unscheduled or unauthorized chassis arrivals and departures.

“The visibility to assets is critical so you always know where these chassis are,” says Mitchell. “What that means is better use of your investment so you’re not leasing chassis you don’t need. It also enables more efficient passage of the chassis into the facility so it reduces delays. It cuts the time spent searching for chassis due for preventative maintenance. It provides a level of security in as much as you will be aware of which chassis are permitted to enter the yard and which ones shouldn’t be in the yard.”

As well, the close tracking improves customer service, he says. The old manual procedure was more prone to error in billing customers for use of the chassis.

“We have experienced near-perfect read rates with readers and tags, which has resulted in increased efficiency of our chassis fleet, improved productivity and cost savings,” says Remy Benmiloud, CN manager, IMX (intermodal excellence).” – Ron Glen