Next Generation WiFi
By John Geirland, Fri Oct 11 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Emerging ways in which WiFi may become a part of our lifestyles ? going beyond the usual cafe-airport-hotel patter.


You know you are in the midst of a WiFi boom when people starting
talking about “Next Generation WiFi.” A host of startups, corporate
research labs and community associations are deploying emerging WiFi
technologies in ways that go beyond the “been there, done that”
scenarios of wireless broadband access at cafés-hotels-airports. Here
are a few examples:

WiFi On
Wheels


You are driving north on highway 101
and pass a “Welcome to San Francisco” sign. An up-to-date map of the
city, tourist information and an MP3 file - the BackStreet Boy’s latest
hit that you paid for earlier - are uploaded to your car in the time it
takes to pass through the sign’s “InfoFueling” coverage area (about 300
ft/90 m).

Don’t head down to the local auto showroom yet. The
vehicle capable of this feat is a top-of-the-line Mercedes Sedan
retrofitted at the DaimlerChrysler Research and Technology facility in
Palo Alto.

The “DriveBy Infofueling” vision entails a
landscape of strategically located access points where a driver can
upload (or download) large volumes of data in the seconds it takes to
drive through an access point coverage area. The technology conforms to
the telematics DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communications) standard,
which is based on the more advanced 802.11a protocol.

When the
FCC allocated the 5.9 GHz range for telematics, it also allowed for the
development of commercial applications – assuming they did not
interfere with safety-related transmissions. Dr. Wieland Holfelder,
manager of Smart Vehicles Research at DaimlerChrysler, hopes the
prototype his team built will waken the industry to the potential of
InfoFueling. “We have this little device in the car,” Holfelder says.
“Because it is based on the DSRC standard, it can not only do safety
applications - which is what we intended to use it for - it can also do
these ‘DriveBy’ types of applications.”

DriveBy InfoFueling is
based on a “sometime, somewhere” communications model. The type of
information uploaded or downloaded at InfoFueling stations – music,
maps, email, etc. – would not be so time sensitive or mission critical
as to require a constant network connection. That is a good thing,
since downloading MP3 and other large files can be time consuming and
expensive over cellular networks. Under the best of conditions, an MP3
can take 10 minutes or more to download over a GPRS
network.

DriveBy InfoFueling is a “great concept and a viable
potential for the technology,” says Yankee Group analyst Sarah Kim,
though she also feels the “business case has not been fully developed.”
Holfelder says he will leave it to others to work out the business
model. He admits that DriveBy InfoFueling faces a “chicken or egg”
dilemma. “No one will build the [roadside] infrastructure if there are
no vehicles with the device,” he says. “And the auto industry won’t
equip vehicles with the device if there is no infrastructure.” The
best hope is that DriveBy InfoFueling will get a jumpstart from the
electronic toll collection industry. Building on toll collection, even
a limited rollout, says Holfelder – like the three bridges feeding into
San Francisco – can add value.

Other companies are also
exploring the uses of 802.11 technology in transportation environments.
Maitland, Florida-based MeshNetworks is working to bring 802.11 to
public transportation in four Asian countries, including Korea. Bus or
subway passengers would connect to 802.11 access points in buses or
trains with their laptops or other WiFi-enabled devices. Access is
“backhauled” to the Internet via MEA (Mesh-Enabled Architecture),
MeshNetworks’ mobile broadband suite of products. “This joint
802.11-MEA combination offers users the chance to connect with their
standard 802.11 cards, but in a mobile environment,” says Allen Kupetz,
MeshNetworks’ director for international business development.


Networking Without a
Network


Broadband services have been slow to
arrive in the remote Dales of Cumbria in the North of England, a region
at the center of last year’s economically devastating foot and mouth
crisis. EdenFaster, a local community group, plans to use a clever
combination of off-the-shelf technology (probably Enterasys and Cisco
hardware) to create a mesh-style local broadband network for the 10,000
citizens and hundreds of businesses and schools of Eden valley.


The users of this “mesh-style” network will be able to swap
large volumes of content – video on demand and Voice over IP are under
discussion - from house to business to school at faster data rates than
would be available over dialup connections. Annison expects
EdenFaster’s network to “allow for diversification, upskill the area,
create higher than average pay employment immediately” and result in the
creation of “social networks.”

One company that shares this
vision of WiFi community-building is Fremont, California-based Green
Packet. A roaming infrastructure and wireless network software
development firm, Green Packet began beta testing its SONbuddy ad hoc
WiFi community networking technology in September. “SONbuddy will allow
all WLAN devices to form a self-organizing network through peer-to-peer
and peer-to-multi-peer connections,” says C. C. Puan, the company’s
Malaysian-born CEO.

With this type of “multi-hop” technology,
each WLAN device acts like an intelligent router. If enough devices are
within range of each other, no central network is necessary. In order
to make life in an ad hoc network more interesting, SONbuddy includes a
number of applications, such as profiling, games and peer-to-peer file
sharing. The technology can be used anywhere, Puan says, but in
developing countries or areas lacking sufficient infrastructure,
SONbuddy “can be an alternative network.”

Given the short hop
distances, Ad hoc WiFi networks are dependent on the availability of a
critical mass of WiFi-enabled devices. Puan is aware of the issue and
Green Packet is making a push to get its technology into as many devices
as possible (beta versions are available for Windows-based notebooks,
Pocket PC-based computers and desktops).

Some question whether
“closed garden” ad hoc WiFi networks would provide a compelling enough
experience for users. “Ultimately, you want to connect with as many
people as possible,” notes Charles Colvin, a senior analyst at Forrester
Research. That means Internet access. Happily, users in Eden Valley
villages like Kirkby Stephen and Warcop will be able to escape their
closed garden by accessing the Internet via a 10MB link on a mobile
phone mast at Appleby.

Location Location
Location


“Location-based” is a term most people
associate with mobile cellular networks. A Boston-based company called
Newbury Networks is applying the same idea to WiFi networks. About a
year ago the company’s chief technology officer, Matthew Gray,
discovered that the signal strengths of WiFi access points produced a
unique signature that could be used to define a physical space. That
revelation led to the development of Newbury’s Location-Enabled Network
(LEN) technology.

Newbury Networks CEO Michael Maggio says LEN
allows WLAN administrators to deliver different content or network
access to defined spaces or locales within a WiFi network coverage area.
LEN, Maggio adds, is what “next generation WiFi” is all about. “WiFi
with location is more than just wireless LAN. It gives you control over
your network.”

At present, Newbury is concentrating on three
“verticals” – universities, museums and the hospitality industry. The
company is working with MIT, where the company’s LocaleServer, a
Java-based application server, is being used to guide visitors through
the Sloan School of Management. As part of the licensing agreement,
MIT faculty and students are free to think up new uses for the
technology.

The company recently concluded a deal with
Dartmouth - a totally wireless campus - to deploy LEN technology at the
Thayer School of Engineering. If the deployment works as expected, a
professor could wirelessly post homework assignments to the physical
location of the classroom (if you want your assignment, you have to show
up). Access to email and the Internet can be restricted within the
confines of the classroom, but made accessible again in the hallway.


Boston’s Royal Sonesta hotel has been using LocaleServer to
guide visitors through rooms and galleries containing its collection of
modern art. Major museums in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles are
currently evaluating the technology for their collections.


Newbury Networks “offers a very niche-y solution,” says Yankee
Group’s Kim. “They are one of those technologies that make sense for
very advanced users of wireless technology.” Kim questions whether
Newbury can expand its customer base beyond the university, museum and
hospitality sectors. One selling point is security. “If you know
where your devices are, you can manage them more effectively,” Kim says.


Cheap and Ubiquitous

There is no
saying which (if any) of these “Next Generation” WiFi products and
deployments will make the leap from “interesting technology” to
commercial success. At present, WiFi is largely limited to high-end
consumers and upper level corporate users. Most people “aren’t walking
around with Compaq iPAQs or Toshiba 802.11 PDA’s,” notes Newbury
Network’s Maggio.

Luckily, growth figures are encouraging.
Gartner Dataquest forecasts that Wireless LAN sales will leap to 26.5
million units in 2003, up 73% from 2002 levels, with prices dropping.
Intel is committed to getting 802.11 capability into its chipsets.
Handset and PDA manufacturers may eventually fall into line. Says
Maggio: “The issue [for Next Generation WiFi] is when the
[802.11-enabled] client devices will be inexpensive and easy to use.”


John Geirland is co-author of
"Digital Babylon," a book about the online entertainment
business, and writes about mobile wireless developments from Los
Angeles.