What will tomorrow's wireless landscape look like? "The line between wide area and local area will be blurring," predicts Tom Libretto, director of product management for Nokia enterprise solutions. "As a user, I'll expect connectivity to be maintained regardless of the underlying protocol."
Much of that seamlessness will stem from improved wide area data coverage, which will only get wider and faster in the near future as the major cellular carriers roll out 3G networks that provide downstream throughput in the 400 to 700 Kbps range (which is similar to a slow DSL connection). Today, coverage is generally good and getting better. "All the major markets are covered [with Verizon EV-DO] and we're continuing to expand our footprint," says Verizon Wireless spokesperson Brenda Rainey.
Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless are upgrading their networks to EV-DO Revision A (or Rev. A), which delivers a marginal increase in downlink speeds but a major boost in uploading horsepower.
According to ABI analyst Philip Solis, both CDMA (Sprint and Verizon) and GSM (T-Mobile and Cingular--now transitioning its name to AT&T) cellular camps will follow upgrade paths to comparable and ever-speedier performance. Solis says EV-DO will likely progress through Rev. A, then potentially Rev. B (providing a downlink speed boost of around 50 percent) and finally the much faster Rev. C, also called Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB). GSM carriers will move through HSDPA to HSPA (increased uplink) to HSPA Evolved (generally faster) and eventually arrive at Long Term Evolution, or LTE. UMB and LTE will likely be the basis of fourth-generation technologies. "The idea of 4G is that you could use it for fixed and mobile, voice and data," says Solis, noting its design goals of 1 Gbps fixed and 100 Mbps mobile downlinks. Solis estimates that 4G will begin deployment in the United States within five years.
Apart from the cellular wide area technologies, WiMAX is a wireless wildcard that proponents hope will provide high-speed, cost-effective data coverage over metro areas. "WiMAX will probably offer double the data rates of the 3G products that are planned," says Dean Chang, director of product solutions for WiMAX equipment maker Aperto Networks.
WiMAX has friends in high places. Intel has committed to integrating the technology in laptops in much the way it did with WiFi, which would give it a huge jumpstart in terms of a client device base. Sprint owns large amounts of WiMAX spectrum and has contracted Motorola to help deploy the technology. "Most of Sprint's build-out will be in 2008," says Solis.
Not everyone believes WiMAX will be a significant force, though. "The bottom line is that WiMAX is an interesting technology and has some applications, but it's not going to replace high-speed, full mobility wireless anywhere in the world where it's already installed," says wireless mobility expert and consultant Andrew Seybold, who points to the large number of base stations required for coverage and a lack of handset support as stumbling blocks. "There are not enough laptops in the world to pay for a wireless data network," he says.
Projected enterprise demand for wide area data is based largely on mobilizing the office. Aperto's Chang envisions cities as hotspots without borders, freeing business users from hunting down WiFi connections. Verizon's Willis sees 3G creating seamless data connectivity on the move. "[Enterprise] applications will be able to operate very much like they would in the office because of the speed. I think we'll see much greater ease of mobilization of [our] customers' solutions," he says.
Those applications will be increasingly accessed through devices with wireless technologies already built-in, simplifying deployment and usage. Dell, HP, Lenovo, Panasonic, Sony and Toshiba offer business-targeted laptops with integrated 3G radios. If Intel's WiMAX-in-every-notebook dream becomes a reality, users may enjoy a three-tiered "best-connected" progression of WiFi, WiMAX and 3G, assuring speedy data access virtually anywhere. Multiple radios will also be increasingly present in smartphones. "We're extremely interested in the study and implementation of WiMAX and WiFi radios in our handsets," says Nokia's Libretto. Think Local
The enterprise may soon adopt a technology that employees already use at home. The next generation of WiFi 802.11n will offer a substantial performance bump over its predecessors. There are many consumer-targeted devices today based on the Draft 1.0 11n specification, but since the standard hasn't yet been ratified by the IEEE, interoperability between manufactures remains an issue. Solis said that Draft 2.0 11n certification will begin this year, and that a final 11n spec should be standardized by mid 2008, offering real-world throughputs of around 450 Mbps in its most capacious implementations.
"We expect that in mid-to-late 2007, we'll see a lot of the enterprise movers and shakers pushing forward with 11n," says Todd Antes, VP of marketing for WiFi chipmaker Atheros, noting that the enterprise is "more critical on interoperability." According to Antes, 11n will lower deployment costs in new installations because its greater range and efficiency allow coverage with fewer access points than previous WiFi technologies required.
Besides throughput and coverage improvements, Antes noted that 11n's reduced latency would improve sound quality if enterprises adopt WiFi VoIP solutions. Several manufacturers, including Cisco, offer WiFi VoIP handsets today, and WiFi will likely appear in more cell phones in the coming years. "The return on investment for an enterprise taking a full VoIP approach is extremely compelling," said Nokia's Libretto, envisioning employees' cell phones automatically switching to the enterprise WiFi network whenever possible. "You have one phone, one voicemail â€¦ it saves time on phone tag and it saves money because people call each other on their mobiles even when they're in the same building," said Solis. Regardless of the underlying technology, it's clear the mobile enterprise will have more and better options for wireless connectivity in the years to come.
Peter M. Ferenczi is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and Paris.