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The Advanced Infrastructure Solutions (AIS) division of computer giant, IBM, is targeting three particular market opportunities in the Asia Pacific region. These include public wireless local areas networks (PWLANs), ad-hoc networks, and citywide broadband.

"PWLAN is really booming worldwide," says Ryutaro Kusumoto, business development manager for Advanced Infrastructure Solutions at IBM Asia Pacific. "Particularly in China, Korea, Japan and Singapore. IBM is in a position to pursue these opportunities."

Kusumoto, in Sydney this week, was previously president of Silicon Valley-based start-up, Whistle Communications, before IBM acquired the company in 1999.

"IBM has done a fair bit of business in PWLAN for the enterprise," he says. "For example, a number of customers have integrated WLAN on university campuses. The spotlight is now on the public space, which we consider to be great social infrastructure."

Kusumoto continues, "the deployment of 3G has been delayed and hasn't really lived up to earlier promises. PWLAN is a great bridge between 2.5G and 3G. Carriers find it interesting and useful to supplement services."

The largest move by IBM into the PWLAN space has been the creation of a wholesale hotspot developer.

In December, IBM formed Cometa Networks with AT&T and Intel. The company, backed by venture capitalists Apax Partners and 3i, predicts the development of 20 000 hotspots in the United States by 2004. By that time, users will be within five minutes of a hotspot.

McDonalds is one of the largest customers to date. In March, they announced a pilot program for ten of the golden arches in Manhattan, New York.

The trial coincided with the launch of Intel's Centrino, mobile technology for laptops that features built-in wireless capability.

Kusumoto believes the integration of IEEE 802.11x in laptops and other handheld devices will drive usage of PWLAN, which requires a critical mass to be commercial viable.

The growing hype surrounding PWLAN, however, provides an opportunity to exploit the shortcomings of third generation mobile technologies (3G), which has been plagued by deployment delays and speeds lower than promised.

Security and privacy remain the key inhibitors for enterprise use of PWLAN, he says.

Perhaps more interesting than going for a slice of the hotspot pie, however, are trials exploring citywide broadband. IBM are testing the technology in one US county, which vary in area from a couple hundred to fifty thousand square kilometres, and in population from about a thousand people to about ten million.

"This technology is both first and last mile," says Kusumoto, "based on a derivative or advancement of 802.11x."

Ad hoc or mesh networks use technology such as multi-hopping that allows for peer to peer wireless routing where each subscriber device acts as a repeater and a router for all other devices on the network.

Multi-hopping, patented by Mesh Networks, creates a robust meshed network that automatically routes around congestion and line-of-sight obstacles, while improving throughput as subscriber density increases.

The network does not depend on GPS for subscriber geo-location, making it particularly useful for emergency services.

In ad-hoc or infrastructureless networks, a collection of nodes can form a temporary network without any centralised authority.

Kusomoto also points to other emerging standards such as 802.16 and 802.20 in overcoming some of the limitations of 802.11 such as congestion and the need for line-of-sight.

"Multi-hopping solves this problem," he says. "802.16 can be a hub for 802.11a b and g. You you can fill the whole area with some kind of frequency range. "Some cities the United Kingdom have citywide broadband. They have become self-sufficient in communications and don't need a telco."

He continues, PWLAN speeds are far superior to 3G at 10Mbps to 50Mbps. "However, they will be complementary technologies as PWLAN will only represent five percent of the coverage of CDMA in two or three years time."

Set up in 1999, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.16 Working Group on Broadband Wireless Access Standards are supporting the development of broadband wireless metropolitan area networks.

The aim of the IEEE P802.20 Standard "is to develop the specification for an efficient packet based air interface that is optimized for the transport of IP based services," according to the organisation. "The goal is to enable worldwide deployment of affordable, ubiquitous, always-on and interoperable multi-vendor mobile broadband wireless access networks that meet the needs of business and residential end user markets."

Kusumoto believes the critical mass required to develop a solid business case for PWLAN is slowly building. "Thousands of wireless ISPs operate in the world," he says. "The big question is how can it be commercially successful."

Initiatives such as the Wireless Broadband Alliance are a step in the right direction, according to Kusumoto. The Alliance has five major telcos including Korea Telecom, China Netcom, Malaysia's Maxis Communications Berhad, and Singapore's StarHub.

Key pilot projects of the Alliance include interoperability of WiFi roaming throughout Asia to simplify communications and billing for business travelers in the region.

Kusumoto believes that greater interoperability will allow PWLANs to become a valuable social infrastructure. "Back in the IT boom in the late 1990s," he says, "everyone took part in a land grab. If one operator takes McDonalds and one takes Burger King and they can't communicate, that's a big problem."

The key, he concludes, "is a roaming service among providers where eventually the access charge will be close to zero."

Reprinted from