MobileStar Gives IBM Nod For Wireless Deployment

In what could be a sign of wonderful times to come, MobileStar Network Corp. this week signed IBM Corp. to deploy its nationwide Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN).

It’s news that should be a welcome relief to travelers who have had to deal with the hassle of lugging around a telephone cord and finding a dial up port to connect to the Internet or their company’s enterprise network.

The company has been operational four years and has about 170 sites in the 20 largest cities in America, with a subscriber base that officials expect to grow once the network builds out more. MobileStar is currently available at airport lounges and terminal areas, hotels and restaurants.

Now, instead of plugging into a telephone jack and getting dial up speeds, equipped laptops subscribed to the wireless service can access the Internet at T-1 speeds from the lounge of an airport, in the hotel or even the local Starbuck’s coffee shop, using a wireless LAN connection.

What’s more, the company is making it easy for consumers to use the same WLAN card they use at the office or in the home while they’re on the road.

The technology used by MobileStar is based on two spread spectrum technologies: the older Frequency-Hopping (FHSS) and the recently standardized 802.11b Direct-Sequence (DSSS).

Ali Tabasssi, chief technology and development officer for MobileStar, said his company acknowledged the need for both systems. When MobileStar started in 1996, he said, they deployed with Open Air FHSS wireless systems. But with the 802.11b standardization by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. the company started deploying both after March, 2000.

“We chose to be technology agnostic and provide service on the network to both caps,” Tabassi said. “We are seeing that 802.11b is definitely taking a huge step as far as acceptance goes in the enterprise environment. Corporations are using 802.11b to go wireless in their buildings and those same users are demanding that the card they are using in the office be used at home and on the road.”

Pricing for the MobileStar depends on the amount of time spent online. Subscribers pay $15.95 for the entry-level service, which gives the user 200 minutes a month, while the Supernova plan for unlimited use costs $59.95 a month.

Tabassi said there has been an increasing demand for wireless services which his company can provide.

“For today’s mobile professionals, the always-on availability of their corporate Intranet or the Internet is crucial,” Tabassi said. “Providing those individuals with high-speed access in locations along their travel ribbon allows them to maximize their productivity.”

MobileStar announced recently its plans to provide its broadband service to more than 4,000 locations around the nation and Canada in 2002. Officials expect to have about 2,000 in place by the end of the year.

Tabassi, addressing the concern that wireless connections might make it easier for malicious hackers to “sit in” on a user’s Internet session, said security is the same as with a wired connection to the Internet.

“From Day One, MobileStar has always recommended the use of a personal firewall on their laptop to protect their system from intruders and a virtual private network (VPN) to access their corporate Intranet,” Tabassi said.

“Can someone break into the VPN, yes,” Tabassi continued.” If (a cracker) has the sophisticated machinery and lots of time and money in their possession and they sit in the same place, they might figure something out. I’m not going to say that its 100 percent secure, because no system is completely foolproof, but there are applications out there to make the system safe.”

According to Marlon Schafer, owner of Odessa Office Equipment, in Odessa, WA, wireless security is always a concern, but use of the Wireless Encryption Protocol (WEP) used by many personal firewall vendors should be enough to deter most black hats.

“I’m sure that WEP will be used and that’s pretty strong encryption,” Schafer. “There is talk about it being hackable but the equipment needed to do it will not be sitting at the local coffeeshop. If a crook wants your data that bad it’ll be far cheaper, faster, and likely safer to just grab your laptop and run.”

IBM, which has a wealth of experience at network builds, is responsible for the site survey, electrical work and getting the T-1 from the carrier to the building, and from there setting up a Cisco Wireless LAN Access Point.

Dean Douglas, IBM general manager of wireless e-business services in the Americas, said rollout of high-speed services to thousands of locations in a year is a task IBM has been doing for 12 years now.

“Project management is really the skill that IBM brings to the equation,” Douglas said. “The trick here is to be able to handle this kind of deployment, managing all the technologies that need to be brought together. And you’ve got to work in an environment where things change, so you have to be able to adapt and modify so you get these locations done in such a short time.”

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