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Living together

Wireless and wired technologies are destined to form a symbiotic relationship and peacefully share the same space -- at least for the next few years. It's as old as human nature -- the fear of being replaced. It happens every time society introduces a new and competing technology. The accepted and older technology questions whether the newer technology -- the so-called "upstart" -- will usurp the established order.

February 1, 2001  

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In this case, the established order is wired technologies like cable modem, digital subscriber line (DSL) and other types of structured cable. Threatening its dominance is wireless technology, notably fixed wireless, third-generation (3G) mobile telephones and microwave devices like multipoint multichannel distribution services (MMDS), or wireless cable (please see “Wireless Cable” sidebar).

Much of the optimism, understandably, originates from wireless-industry analysts, some media outlets and proponents of new technologies. Many of them project that wireless devices will become a significant means for people to send and receive information — for business and residential customers.

For example, take the case of broadband Internet for the residential user in the United States. “The next few years will see wireless broadband technology introduced in a number of US markets,” says Michael Greeson, consulting analyst for Parks Associates in Dallas.

The technology-research firm predicts that such alternative wireless technologies will capture 17 per cent of the broadband Internet market by 2004. Industry giants Sprint and MCI WorldCom are working to capture a huge chunk of the MMDS market. Combined, these companies are looking to set up services in more than 40 US markets in 2001.

“There’s a role for fixed wireless among residential users,” Greeson adds, mainly because, as he points out, “some cable and DSL service providers haven’t kept their commitments to customers.” (Residents have waited weeks, and even months, to become connected.) Even so, wired technologies would still control the lion’s share of that market in the US: 83 per cent.

In Canada, things differ. “I suspect that there’s a lot of undue optimism,” says Brian Platts, a telecom analyst with technology-consulting firm NBI Michael Sone & Associates in Toronto, about wireless technology proponents. “There is demand, but it’s not that high.”

In addition, even the Canadian wireless-industry trade group holds a more cautious view of the place wireless has in the communications sector. “Wireless plays a complementary role to cable,” says Peter Barnes, president and CEO of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) in Ottawa. “In the marketplace, we are seeing people combine wired and wireless technologies, which are based on the customer’s needs for speed of installation, delivery and how often they move operations.”


The choice of technology can be boiled down to whether one needs speed or mobility. Wireless can’t compete with cable on transmission speeds, because fiber can deliver data at one gigabit per second (Gbps). Wireless devices, however, are at least 30 times slower — mainly because of technological limitations — and, for most users, deliver data at about 10 megabits per second (Mbps).

“Wireless is faster than yesterday’s technology,” says Iain Grant, managing director of the Yankee Group in Canada, a technology-consulting firm in Brockville, ON. “But it will always lag behind, despite having all the best and brightest engineers working in that direction. It’s still going to be easier to carry data in structured wave-guides than through the ether.”

Grant and other analysts say that wireless is currently between five and seven years behind structured cable. And although the wireless sector will overcome some technological obstacles related to transmission speeds, it will always play catch-up to the cable side of things.

Speed, although important for large organizations, is not essential to smaller operations. “The vast majority of small and medium sized enterprises are using DSL operating at 1 to 2 Mbps,” says Steve Spooner, president and CEO of Stream Intelligent Networks Corp in Toronto, a provider of high-speed data communications services. “It’s only a very large organization that needs at least one gigabit bandwidth before it runs out of gas.”

Tod Maffin, a Vancouver-based technology futurist, agrees that speed is overemphasized as a selling point. “Speed is less important than a lot of people think,” says Maffin. “Consumer demand for it is not there yet.”

In some cases, however, speed of another kind is important — namely speed of installation, marking one of wireless technology’s chief advantages. For example, when Stream won a federal government auction for a license to offer services in the 38-GHz range in the fall of 1999, it was able to deliver its first installation in April 2000. (It was an OC3-rated radio, which has a 155-Mbps capability. And, it recently added OC12-rated devices, which have 622-Mbps capabilities.)

“If we have the radio antennas in stock and a fiber hub nearby, we can turn service up in days,” Spooner says. Fixed wireless transmits signals by using antennas that sit on the roofs of commercial buildings, which operate much in the same way as cellular-phone dishes (please see “Roof Rights” sidebar.)

The company, which offers both fixed wireless and wired services, has made a number of wireless installations since then. These include an installation at a financial institution’s data centre, which relies on the wireless technology as a backup to its wired installation, and a Tier 2 service provider, which operates in a community that lacks fiber services. “There are some places where fiber is not economical and that’s where wireless can play a role,” Spooner points out.

Ninety per cent of buildings in North America are not served by fiber, and yet 76 per cent of buildings are within one mile of a fiber hub, he notes. “That speaks volumes as to the potential of wireless.”


Another area in which mobile solutions are gaining ground is wireless local area networks (LANs) operating with 11-Mbps Ethernet cards. “Within less than a year, it has gone from ‘problematical and doesn’t always work’ to ‘this is great,'” Platts points out.

“There has been considerable improvement in wireless technologies, particularly in their reliability,” notes Barnes of the CWTA. Its quality has been strengthened by acceptance among equipment vendors of the new standard for high-speed wireless networks — the IEEE 802.11b.

Companies going the wireless LAN route are wiring offices in a different way, which effectively reduces installation and cabling costs. Instead of the internal wiring going to a specific wall jack, the wiring is directed to a fixed number of base stations in the building. A set number of users can work off of a high-speed access router — usually between 20 and 30 people.

No doubt, wireless LANs are well suited to companies that have a mobile workforce, like salespeople equipped with laptop computers, who can work in their offices or offsite without losing a beat. But it doesn’t make business sense for all situations, Platts says: “With the price of a laptop about twice that of a desktop model, wireless becomes a far more expensive technology for most companies.”

One area in which wireless is becoming prominent is in large public buildings like hospitals and airports. The Ottawa airport is dotted with wireless antennas, which enable passengers with laptops equipped with wireless modems to connect to the airport’s LAN and find out such things as flight departures and arrivals. And healthcare facilities have also been turning to wireless, Grant adds. “I was in a hospital visiting someone and found that there was a lot of wireless being used by doctors and nurses making their [patient] case reports.”

Still, wireless has not found great public acceptance. For example, Spooner of Stream concedes that most companies are reluctant to look at wireless solutions, waiting until it becomes more proven and acceptable. “You don’t have that initial resistance with fiber.”

Richard St-Pierre, a mobile analyst with management-consulting firm Cap Gemini Ernst & Young in Montreal, says the reasons probably centre on social habits. “People are not used to working in a wireless environment.” St-Pierre says that new wireless products will not “cannibalize traditional markets,” but increase the appetite for more services —
wireless and wired. “Bandwidth will always be a requirement and high bandwidth will be provided either through cable or fiber. There will always be a market for cable and fiber.”


Perhaps the real question is not whether wired technologies face a real threat from wireless ones, but to what extent do wireless technologies need wired backbones to survive?

For example, take the case of the proliferation of wireless LANs. That scenario ought to give the cabling industry some optimism, mainly because these devices will have to be connected to a wired backbone. “And who’s going to run the backbone? Grant asks. “Well, somebody who has wires.”

This should at least assuage any fears that wired technologies are doomed to be overtaken by wireless ones. For one, Spooner predicts that there will be a growth in Internet data centres, web hosting services, storage area networks and large corporate offices, thereby increasing the demand for “big pipe” solutions. “In these areas, fiber will be the mainstay,” he says. “Although wireless will have some role to play.”

Stream has recently acquired the rights to a robotic cabling technology, which will enable it to unobtrusively install fiber optic cable in the sewer systems, rather than ripping up municipal roads. In Berlin, Germany, municipal planners relied on the robotic technology to wire its city with fiber. Stream has big plans for the technology in the Toronto area. It completed a 5-kilometre build in Mississauga in December 2000, connecting 14 office buildings. “The residents weren’t even aware we were wiring, which is a testament to the technology,” says Spooner, who adds that a build is planned for Toronto.

For many, that scenario speaks volumes. “I don’t believe that one day we’ll rip up all the wires that are underground and we’ll become wireless,” says Maffin.

Besides the obvious — that structured cable is a proven technology — Maffin offers another reason why it would be careless to quickly go the wireless way: limited bandwidth on the electromagnetic spectrum in which wireless devices operate. “Contrary to popular belief, there’s not a lot of space on the airwaves right now.” He says that given the way things stand, specific obstacle will become more apparent once 3G and Bluetooth-enabled products become more popular in a few years (please see “Wireless Chips” sidebar).

Wireless, particularly fixed wireless technologies like MMDS, will likely have a place in society alongside cable. For that reason, industry analysts like Grant, Barnes and others recommend that cabling professionals learn both technologies. This will allow them, when they enter a customer’s site, to offer the best possible service.

Most industry analysts prudently say that both technologies will coexist for a long time, notably Grant of the Yankee Group: “Anyone who sticks his neck out and says ‘Wireless is the best thing and it’s time to throw out everything that came before it’ — is a fool.”CS

Perry J. Greenbaum, a Montreal-based freelance writer, can be reached at

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