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Wireless Exploits

There are many breakthroughs occurring, which is good news for structured cabling vendors and installers. As one vendor put it, wireless access at everyone's fingertips ultimately puts added demands on a cabling infrastructure.


July 1, 2006  


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Wireless connectivity is the “uber-steroid,” the most important element “flattening” our planet today, writes Thomas L. Friedman in his book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Ubiquitous wireless-enabled hardware and wireless networks, even on international flights via connexionbyboeing.com, render Friedman’s claim unassailable.

Alberta’s oil patch is no exception. Wireless field ticketing applications help energy sector support workers capture information while in the field.

To meet burgeoning demand, Telus Corp. recently collaborated with Calgary software developer Spira Data Corp. to provide a made-in-Alberta wireless field ticketing service. “Field ticketing is predominantly a manual process for many companies, which often means that less than 20% of operational data is actually recorded,” said Jeff Lowe, vice president of Oil and Gas Marketing, Telus Business Solutions. “With this, oilfield supply and service companies can eliminate paper in the field to get paid quicker, eliminate costly re-keying errors and report on every aspect of their field operations.”

Tom Haber, director of energy sector marketing for Telus, says stacks of paper in field technicians’ trucks are giving way to ruggedized laptops containing forms, price books and calculation tools.

At signoff, the data travels on the Telus 1x network back to customers’ offices where it feeds into all appropriate systems.

Coverage is a common challenge. “You’re sometimes in a dip or a valley and the 1x isn’t there at the time,” Haber explains. “The system stores forward the information, so once the vehicle gets to a green zone, the system automatically recognizes it and sends it off.”

Sometimes business needs drive wireless deployments.

Elsewhere, convenience and preference play a part. When he spoke to CNS, Irwin Gerszberg, Director of Local Network Access Technology at AT&T Labs, was meeting with wireless industry firms in Israel. During the interview, he spoke on his personal mobile, leaving the hotel phone untouched.

“People will have a national subscription,” Gerszberg predicts. “It will be with Wi-Max or High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), using a laptop right through the window (of their hotel rooms).”

Gerszberg’s wireline/wireless choice doesn’t exist everywhere. According to Mike Barnick, Solutions Marketing Manager for networking equipment vendor Systimax Solutions, “in certain areas of India, China, and Europe, you can’t get a landline.

“In such cases, your home phone is actually a 2 1/2 G GSM box. I think you’re going to see data get piggybacked on that soon.”

That should lead to 3G networks,” says Larry Zibrik, director of marketing and product management for embedded modules at Sierra Wireless Inc., a provider of wireless data communication products: “It takes over some of the high-margin fixed-wire business. Wireless can be quite competitive because capital costs are significantly lower.”

Whatever happens, structured cabling will play a pivotal role. According to Belden CDT Inc., putting wireless access at everyone’s fingertips puts added demands on cabling infrastructure.

“Only a fully integrated, easily accessible structured cabling system can act as the on-ramp to the information superhighway, and its limitless possibilities,” the company says. “The demand for wireless access has a direct impact on cabling infrastructure. Yes, wireless systems require wire for proper functionality. To be able to transfer data to switches and servers, wireless access points need to be supported by cabling. But since cabling is all but invisible, most people tend to forget the importance of reliable, well-designed cabling infrastructure.”

Bob Erickson, a contributor to BICSI’s Wireless Design Reference manual, is one of the approximately 100 people who have received the BICSI Wireless Design (WD) certification.

“Wireless and structured cabling are all part of the network environment that we deal with,” says Erickson. “That’s why WD fits in with other BICSI certifications.”

Wireless development and deployment happens faster overseas, though the U.S. and Canada are catching up, says Terry Boland, director of product marketing with Nortel’s Wireless Broadband group on wireless mesh. The most important wireless markets worldwide fall into two categories, says Manish Gupta, vice president of marketing and alliances with Aperto Networks Inc. Developing countries, bereft of wired capability, go straight to wireless. Also, in developed nations such as Spain, “governments mandate that broadband must be everywhere and provide incentives to service providers to deploy it,” says Gupta.

VoIP is another driver for wireless deployments. Several firms are developing combination cellular-Wi-Fi handsets based, in part, on 802.11e, the 2005 quality-of-service specification designed for voice and video.

However, current models suffer several shortcomings. At Toronto’s Voice on the Net Canada 2006 trade show, experts noted that mixed-mode phones typically cost at least $400 and, since they constantly seek the nearest Wi-Fi access point, they drain their batteries more quickly than traditional mobiles.

Still, today’s cellular technology doesn’t provide enough bandwidth for video or gaming. “Wi-Fi is a perfect fit for that,” says Boland.

In the U.S., Cingular Wireless is catching up with its (High-speed Downlink Packet Access) HSDPA offering. Service is hobbled by paltry current uplink speeds of 360 Kbps, even though downloads occur at 1.8 Mbps. Once HSUPA (High-speed Uplink Packet Access) arrives in 2007, hoped-for uplink speeds of one Mbps may spur wider adoption of the technology.

Boland foresees networks that cater to mixed-mode handsets. “When users want to leave a hot zone and traverse to a cellular network, they can do so through technologies such as roaming and handoff agreements between Internet service providers and cellular providers,” he says.

Key wireless drivers in North America include providing Internet access to residential customers who, because of their physical location, can’t get affordable traditional broadband. Also, several government functions increasingly call for wireless solutions.

802.15.1 (Bluetooth) is changing the way people use telephony, says David Levy. “People want to use one wireless headset, so some modern Bluetooth headsets register with up to sixteen devices,” says the president of Objectworld Communications Corp., an Ottawa IP telephony solution provider.

Bluetooth won’t challenge Wi-Fi or other wireless data protocols. “It’s mainly used for headsets,” says Sierra’s Zibrik. “It was not designed to carry a stream of data on a consistent basis.”

Levy asserts that Wi-Fi will make it more difficult for providers who use licensed spectrum to cover their investments. “You can take advantage of low-cost, high-performance networks that are becoming prolific and cheap,” he says.

AT&T’s Gerszberg adds that POTS is a “100-year-old technology. VoIP infrastructure can deliver CD quality sound end to end.”

“It’s more difficult to do this on land lines, with their 3 KHz technology. That’s worse than AM radio.”

Nortel’s Boland considers Wi-Fi’s limits compared to 3G. “You’ll never get Wi-Fi technology that has the nationwide coverage that cellular technology has,” he says. Also, “Wi-Fi and mesh are for street level access. You’re not going to get penetration 30 floors up unless a service provider wirelessly enables a building with indoor access points.”

Security ranks high on the list for corporate IT buyers, and Zibrik states that 3G networks are better than Wi-Fi in this regard, even after Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (802.11i) was ratified in 2004. When IT managers speak of free Wi-Fi access in coffee shops, they still tend to be “a bit dubious, since they feel it’s out of their control,” says Zibrik.

Their concerns overshadowed the results of a recent survey sponsored by Symantec Corp. More than 60% of polled firms are delay
ing deployment over security questions, while almost 20% already experienced financial loss from attacks over mobile infrastructure.

Another technology joining the mix is wireless mesh, where only one node connects to a wired LAN. IEEE’s 802.11s standard covering mesh is expected in 2008.

Meanwhile, demand for wireless mesh currently springs from applications like emergency services, ad hoc uses like battlefield management, and rural information communications technologies.

In 2005, Dunrobin, Ont., a town near Ottawa, welcomed broadband Internet access from Ottawa-based ISP SimplySurf Wireless Networks. SimplySurf turned to hometown equipment vendors Nortel Networks and Eion Wireless Inc. for hardware.

Kalai Kalaichelvan, CEO of Eion, who provided the backhaul connectivity, views this project as part of a paradigm shift.

“The ‘Let us invest in infrastructure and people will come’ business model ISPs have traditionally followed doesn’t work in sparsely populated places,” says Kalaichelvan.

The former Nortel vice-president says the right model allows an ISP to cheaply deploy and scale networks. He notes that a traditional wireless deployment costs $1,500 to $2,000 per subscriber in capital expenditures, while per-subscriber capex for a wireless mesh network is between $150 and $200.

“(Without wireless mesh), the service provider must have deep pockets,” he says. “People are willing to compromise a certain level of service for a big drop in cost.”

IEEE is trying to simplify outdoor wireless deployment. Later this year, the 802.11r Fast Roaming standard is expected to deal with connectivity for users on the move. 802.16e, or mobile Wi-Max, was ratified in 2005.

For now, though, Zibrik says Wi-Max would offer less coverage than 3G since significant capital investments are required to provide enough coverage for mobility. “If you can’t get the RF to the user, that’s a problem,” says Zibrik.

Kalaichelvan admits that line of sight is still a limitation. Martin Suter, another former Nortel employee, goes farther, bemoaning what he calls the wireless industry’s “dirty little secret”.

“The limitations of existing 802.11 standards are seldom articulated,” the CEO of Cohda Wireless Ltd. says, “which is a disservice to the customer.”

Cohda is testing products in Australia to help 802.11 receivers deal with their Achilles heel when deployed outdoors. Suter says that weakness is in the waveform.

“With the exception of b, all other variations of 802.11 use OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing). Radios manage the waveform using a cyclic prefix, a header that is transmitted at the front of the packet. The receiver on the other side uses that header to tune itself for the rest of the transmission.”

Problems arise when 802.11 moves outdoors. It has a very short cyclic prefix, designed for indoor use where signals don’t bounce off cars, buildings, trees, and other things.

Outdoors, the length of time a header takes to travel to a receiver can vary by several microseconds if it pinballs before reaching its destination. Should this time variance exceed the cyclic prefix, the transmission is incoherent. This problem is called harsh multipath.

Network architects cope by placing nodes close together to ensure line of sight between devices. However, more nodes mean greater capital and deployment expenditures and network complexity. “You may need 30 to 40 nodes per square mile,” says Suter.

By Suter’s estimates, only about 35% of the total cost of ownership is the hardware. The remaining 65% consists of a variety of other costs, all of which can be reduced if fewer nodes are needed.

Wi-Max, also known as 802.16, was designed as an outdoor technology to replace leased lines and cabling infrastructure. The longer cyclic prefix of 11.2 microseconds, versus .8 microseconds for 802.11 is meant to deal with harsh multipath.

Gupta sees Wi-Max interoperability as the key to widespread adoption of the standard.

Wi-Max interoperability was made possible by the 802.16 protocol ratified in July 2004, Now, “companies must ensure interoperability of Wi-Max products,” he says. “The Wi-Max ecosystem is relevant only when you have multiple vendors providing products that interoperate with each other.”

Different types of operators view Wi-Max as a way to fill gaps in their service offerings, says Gupta. “Cable operators, who typically serve the residential market, now want to offer triple-play (voice, data, video) services to business markets using Wi-Max.”

Wireline operators want to use Wi-Max to cover the last mile. For their part, mobile operators are thinking of using Wi-Max, specifically 802.16e, to add true broadband service, since not all 3G services are broadband-capable.

In the final analysis, Gupta takes a big-picture view of the technology. “You’ve got DSL, cable, fiber optic, 3G, Wi-Fi, Wi-Max, different communication technologies, and many people focus on one versus the other. However, they complement each other in a global communications ecosystem.”

Luigi Benetton is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He can be reached at Luigi@LuigiBenetton.com.

Wired vs. Wireless

Is it conflict, congruence, or compatibility?

By Michael Martin

Deciding which network architecture to use in your next LAN deployment can be tough. Should you go wired or wireless? Until recently, it was a far easier question: a wired network was the obvious choice.

The dilemma is now dreadfully complicated because wireless local area network (WLAN) technology is exponentially advancing post wired LANs.

Bandwidth was a key performance indicator (KPI) used to evaluate LAN technology. Now, WLANs can match or exceed wired LANs data throughput.

Another KPI was security. WLANs were reputed to be the scourge of the IT industry and could bring the most locked-down network to its knees. The classic WEP encryption was supposedly easily hacked and war-driving stories were fast becoming legendary. Today, security is less an issue as we have government-grade WPA2 (802.11i) encryption, which at least equals wired LAN security levels.

Performance has plagued WLANs too. Yet, those concerns are virtually resolved with several emerging technologies, like MIMO, mesh networking, dynamic modulation/FEC and smart antenna arrays.

The emerging 802.11n specification promises wireless throughputs that can be up to 6-10 times greater than 802.11a/g and 30-50 times improved over 802.11b. Range is also improved and the expectation is a fourfold increase in coverage area.

When the question of interference comes up, WLANs are still facing some challenges at specific frequencies. IT experts still question reliability, and trust of the technology must still be earned. Risk appraisals and site surveys are required to judge and measure interference concerns. WLAN education is essential as few IT professionals have a suitable and comprehensive understanding of WLAN technology.

Capital expenditure is a major motivator favouring WLAN implementations. Today, it is more economical and much simpler to install a WLAN than a wired LAN. The installation savings and the reduction of workplace disruption alone dictate a WLAN consideration.

Today’s workers demand mobility. They can no longer be tethered to a desk. They want and need location flexibility. With a WLAN, mobility can be achieved without the nonsense of wires to trip over. Office layouts and ergonomics can be optimized without cabling limitations.

When we discuss user applications, either media can deliver bandwidth-demanding rich media content.

The emergence of QoS, VPN, VLAN and other proven and critical wired standards are now making headway in the wireless world too. So, the ability to use just one network management solution can simplify the complexity of operating both architectures. We are now seeing unified network management systems installed.

Of course, ther
e are still issues that need to be considered when deploying a WLAN.

Life expectancy of wireless technology is unknown. It is still evolving rapidly much like wired LAN technology developed in the past. IT professionals should expect to adopt several variations as wireless equipment advances. These advances can impact the anticipated cost savings. So, selecting the correct hardware upfront is critical.

The latest operating systems ease the log-in, access, and driver issues that had previously slowed WLAN adoption. Wireless can now offer transparent and simple connectivity that users welcome.

As with any LAN, scalability is always a concern. User growth can hamper whatever deployed technology you operate. So, the solution is the pursuit of solid upfront planning to address the scaling challenges.

WLANs can be expanded much faster and easier with no delays resulting from pulling cables. But, the background infrastructure must also be capable of supporting these added wireless users.

The conclusion is that WLAN technology has earned the right to stand beside the proven wired LAN solutions. Sure, it can be a standalone solution. But, it can also work as an equal with your wired systems. A hybrid network using both wired and WLANs may be the best approach. Whichever LAN solution you choose, the architecture must respect the industry’s best practices, apply common sense policies and procedures, and adhere to governance that permits safe and responsible use of the media and protects your business assets.

Michael Martin is an IBM Certified Consultant and Digital Media Architect. His work involves new media, broadcast and broadband applications shared over wired and wireless networks. He can be reached at 416-478-3483 or michael.martin@ca.ibm.com.