Cell a Hard Sell
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Cellular has always been a technology on the outside looking in when it comes to in-building wireless data applications. They may be coming in from the cold.
Wireless carriers and service providers are pushing hard for cellular to come in from the cold and snatch a piece of the in-building business from Wi-Fi with claims of better reliability and more available connections.
Powering this push is the drive to uncover new sources of revenue outside of voice services.
"The carriers have finally figured out they have to take up the fight against Wi-Fi," John Spindler, vice president of marketing at LGC Wireless, told internetnews.com.
"We are also seeing big laptop manufacturers put EVDO chips in systems to make the user experience as easy and painless as Wi-Fi."
Advances in cellular technology are also helping out by overcoming some of the more vexing problems of cell phone communications, including its ability to penetrate thick office-building walls or snake signals through a cavernous convention center, Spindler said.
LGC Wireless has some experience under its belt with more than 5,500 active in-building installations worldwide and a customer list that includes such A List companies as General Motors, IBM, Wal-Mart and Google.
The company has also deployed multiple-network systems at more than 60 hospitals across the country, including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. These systems are designed to handle Wi-Fi, as well as 2G and 3G cellular networks.
Hospital deployments are significant since these are places that usually ban cell phone use due to concerns about interference with sensitive medical instruments.
The only problem LGC has encountered, however, is coverage since hospitals are typically packed with lots of equipment and are "highly dense environments," Spindler said. As a result, "you may only get 10,000 square feet of coverage per access unit."
This compares with up to 150,000 square feet of coverage in some wide-open areas of Washington, D.C.'s Dulles airport, which is another LGC Wireless customer.
Cellular may also have an edge as more companies install voice over IP (VoIP) and other bandwidth-heavy applications on their Wi-Fi networks. While each Wi-Fi access point can comfortably handle seven or eight simultaneous VoIP calls before hitting a quality of service wall, in-building cellular can handle a lot more, said Spindler.
Not everyone agrees with the cell sell, however.
"The wireless carriers are worried about revenue loss and scrambling," said Andre Kindness, a product manager with HP who is involved in some of the company's wireless initiatives.
"As more 802.11 standards come out, you will have a robust solution that will compete with in-building cellular WANs."
Some users may also not be too comfortable with a cellular network since it may result in some loss of control between wired and wireless networks. This could be a major concern in hospitals, which have to deal with tight privacy and reporting regulations.
"A lot of hospitals and other organizations are fearful about giving up any information," explained Kindness. "There is a real cost savings and a real security aspect to keeping everything under one umbrella."
Cellular may soon face another opponent as it battles Wi-Fi for in-building supremacy: Metro-wide wireless.
It could be described as Wi-Fi's younger and stronger brother since it can blanket city blocks and entire municipalities with wireless connectivity.
WiMAX is a technology that was practically non-existent two years ago, for example, but has since become a $142.3 million worldwide market in 2005, according to Infonetics Research.
The WiMAX market is now growing at a compound annual rate of about 130 percent and is expected to hit the $1.6 billion mark by 2009.
Mobile WiMAX, or 802.16e, as well other splinter standards may add fuel to the demand for WiMAX, adds researcher In-Stat, which predicts it to be a $3 billion market by 2010.