RealTime IT News

Olympic Level Wi-Fi

From July 9 to 18, the role of Wi-Fi as a means of logistics support will be put to an Olympic-sized test. The venue: Cal State Sacramento's Hornet Stadium. The event: The U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. The challenge: Provide Wi-Fi access not just to hundreds of reports and thousands of spectators, but also to the ice vendors, the water carriers, the security guards and those who monitor the gates.

This is supply-chain stuff, and if it works here it just may help to convince corporate America to give more serious consideration to Wi-Fi for use in its own inventory and warehouse controls.

In 2000, computer uber-vendor Intel rigged out limited wireless capabilities for the track and field trials. Afterwards they sat down with event organizers to talk about wins and losses. Together they determined that the supply chain issue topped the list of problem areas.

"It can be very hot, over 100 degrees, so they need water and ice, and they need to know where it is all the time. You don't want to run out when you need it," explains Marty Menard, director of the information technology department at Intel.

At the same time, the trials this year will have post-Sept. 11 security concerns that did not exist before. With supply trucks coming and going all the time, it will be necessary for gate guards to know which vehicles have a reason to be on the grounds. Wireless offers the best mechanism for managing these logistics tasks.

"Most of these people are doing more than one job and they are worried about more than just trucks. They are never in one place, and trying to reach them in the past has been difficult, even with cell phones with pagers," Menard says.

To help organize all the needed information, Intel developed a custom application for managing the supply chain at the event using Wi-Fi and a smart phone. Analysts suggest this effort could have value as a demonstration of the potential business applications inherent in Wi-Fi networks.

It's not about the connectivity anymore. With the business community largely convinced that Wi-Fi is functional and reasonably robust, the question increasingly becomes: What can it do for me that I could not do before? How can it impact the bottom line? These days it's the application and capability that sells it.

"Now that the hardware and the infrastructure is there, we are now seeing all sorts of new, creative software starting to happen," says Ben Bajarin, an analyst at research house Creative Strategies. "Now people are starting to develop the applications and generating new revenue streams. That's really the next new step."

The supply-chain application sits on top of other apps intended to provide Wi-Fi access to journalists and spectators. It's a big job, one that takes a big burden off event organizers.

"We will probably credential around 750 media members for the 10-day event," says Bill Macriss, director of media operations for the 2004 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. "From an operations side [Wi-Fi] cuts down significantly on the number of telephone lines that will be needed. For the reporters, it gives them a faster connection, one that will allow them to file their stories from virtually anywhere in the media complex."

On the security side, meanwhile, Menard shies away from bragging about the system. "I don't want to put a big bull's eye on it," he says, but it is clear that Intel has taken steps to protect the information.

"We have the data in a very secure data center, we have encryption and second-level authentication on the devices. The public and the private networks are separated. So there are a number of things we have done to protect the private network from people who might want to impact us," says Menard.