Seamless WLAN, WAN Roaming Seeping Slowly In

Find me the Fastest, Cheapest network and connect me.
The November 802.11 conference brought a number of interesting insights into the future of wireless LANs and some of the technology areas that are poised to hit the market. It seems that the hottest issue facing WLANs from an industry perspective is security. But while there are an increasing number of security solutions and approaches, there are other value propositions that can be discussed as well.

One of the growing areas of focus is how WLANs and WANs (wide area networks) will be interconnected seamlessly for the user. Arising from that are a host of related problems like billing and security. A number of authors on this site and others have discussed how WLANs could potentially threaten or alternatively enhance WAN networks. Others, like myself, have written about how the carriers should ultimately own 802.11 networks themselves. Ideally, users should be able to seamlessly roam wireless coverage areas without having to configure anything. My device(s) should be able to sense the “fastest, cheapest” network, enable secure access to it, and automatically switch between it and others as I move.

As a user, I look forward to a time when I don’t have to do any configuration. Mobile device(s) will connect me with any network I choose (CDMA, GPRS, WLAN). There is a lot of work that has to be done to make that possible, however, both on the hardware side and the software side. And of course, users need to be educated about the benefits. More than anything, the last few years have taught us that just because you build it is no guarantee that they’ll come. It’s a daunting task, but there are a group of small companies that are stepping up to the challenge.

Anywhere, Anytime access just took a step forward
Ooh! Ready for a cool tag line/transition/company introduction? It should be like a seal, in and out of water, able to freely move about in both environments ,WLAN and WAN, beautifully connected

Okay, while you’re choking down my horrid attempt at poetic eloquence, companies like NetSeal have been working on, and deploying software that enables secure (IPSec & IKE security) access to data while providing the ability for a mobile device to connect seamlessly between WLANs and WANs. They also create (by default) the means to provide network administration to these devices, such as exact bandwidth and data use, as well as physical location information about the device itself.

How does it work? In English please…
The solution, called ROAMMATE, resides both on the device and on a piece of network hardware (home server). It enables a fixed IP Address for the supported device (phone, PDA etc.) and when the device connects through the network, it sends an authentication request to the mobile device’s home server. Once the communication has been enabled, secure data connection can begin. IPSec is regarded as a security standard, and for most applications, is as good as anything out there. To you, the user, it means that the “keys” that are issued to a mobile device’s software client are frequently interchanged to prevent hacking. Furthermore, IPSec is accepted by carriers in Europe as a security standard for GPRS. The idea is that this software can be deployed by carriers and that a carrier can administer these devices over any part of the network. Carriers would also find value in buying two solutions in one package. With companies like NetSeal, they get an answer to data security as well as an authentication and roaming architecture that let’s them offer more advanced, ubiquitous solutions to users as they deploy next generation devices.

What does it do for the user?
The really interesting part of this from a consumer or mobile user perspective is the ability to roam in and out of different types of coverage seamlessly. ROAMMATE supports most WANs like GPRS, CDMA 2000, and forthcoming 3G networks. It also, of course, supports 802.11. As a user, this means that I can establish a very secure connection to any network without re-configuring my device every time I switch networks. For the carrier, it allows them to physically locate my device and me if I need troubleshooting. It also enables them to bill me precisely for the bandwidth I use depending on the network I’m connecting with. This is very important in a GPRS or 3G world where billing for data usage is the core of the revenue model.

What kind of hardware is needed?
This kind of software anticipates a coming wave of devices that will support both WANs and WLANs on a single device. Currently, PC Card solutions dominate this emerging class of devices, but plug and play cards in PDAs like the Compaq iPAQ and eventually integrated phone-type offerings from the manufacturers could take advantage of this functionality. Technologies like NetSeal’s signal that device manufacturers need to start thinking seriously about this type of functionality, and in essence play catch-up with the software architecture. Such a device could then be enabled with NetSeal’s client to give a user seamless access to the general network environment slowly coming to dominate both public and private arenas.

World vision, Market focused
Another interesting aspect of NetSeal’s vision that caught my attention is that they are focusing on Europe, where there is an enormous group of wireless users who would likely demand and use this technology. Their appearance at the 802.11 show displayed their commitment to the US market, but their focus on the enterprise and on the European market is reflective of the company’s background and makes market sense. NetSeal’s business strategy could be crudely summarized as something like “get momentum from the established user base and grow with the new markets.” Smart idea.

Any number of security/authentication companies can and do compete with NetSeal to provide similar functionality. Where NetSeal has an advantage is in providing a total solution that is owned by the customer. This, combined with their business strategy focused on deploying to WANs and WLANs and marrying the two seamlessly. Their support and focus on GPRS and 802.11 also gives them the ability to play a long-term strategy in WAN, in conjunction with a short-term deployment strategy to enterprise WLAN in the USA using 802.11b.

This technology can sometimes be hard to understand for the average user. Its potential benefits may even be unclear to many at the present time. What we are highlighting here, though, is that NetSeal’s ROAMMATE is the type of end-user focused technology that can and will drive adoption and usage of mobile devices and services. The value to the enterprise and mobile consumer, whether they are on WLAN or WAN, is that it brings us closer to that utopian world of “always connected” mobility. At some point the user experience has to be free of device configuration, security concerns, and network connectivity concerns. The end-user will increasingly demand that those issues be addressed and that they be able to walk around in mobile freedom. While there is definitely a market timing and traction issue, as well as a few years of growth waiting in the wings, companies like NetSeal do a lot to pull that future into the present.

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