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Wave propagation – Is 802.11’s growth just getting started?

Matthew Miller, Special Projects Editor
March 20, 2003

Three years ago, IEEE 802.11b was an obscure technical standard. Mentioning it elicited little more than blank stares. Since then, Wi-Fi has become not only a powerful force in the electronics industry but also a true societal phenomenon. Today, 802.11 is practically a household name.
Yet the technology’s rise shows no signs of leveling off. If anything, the pace of 802.11-related announcements has accelerated in recent months. Wi-Fi is sinking its roots deep into the technology landscape. Meanwhile, enterprising people are nurturing the various varieties of 802.11 and even crossbreeding them with other promising technologies. As hard as it may be to believe, Wi-Fi’s growth has only just begun.
But don’t take my word for it. Come along as we explore Wi-Fi’s future with respected visionary John Patrick, an IBM veteran who has a proven track record in prognostication and a compelling argument that we’re still underestimating 802.11.
Patrick, who spent 35 years at IBM, most recently as vice president of Internet technology, is also a founding member of the World Wide Web Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the chairman of the Global Internet Project. Now president of his own company (Attitude LLC), an author (Net Attitude, 2001, Perseus Publishing), and a frequent keynote speaker, he is widely acknowledged as one of the first people to recognize the true potential of the Internet back in the early 1990s.
“If you want to be connected, and if you have a reason to be connected, then you should be able to do so anywhere. And that’s the way it’s going to be. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
–John Patrick, Attitude LLC
In short, when Patrick talks, people listen. And these days, he’s spending quite a bit of time talking about Wi-Fi. “From my perspective, Wi-Fi is to wireless as the Internet was to wired communications 10 years ago,” he says.
Patrick expects Wi-Fi to grow into a truly pervasive form of Internet access, one that goes far beyond today’s smattering of hotspots. As that happens, he also expects to see Wi-Fi emerge as a mobile-phone technology, throwing a wrench into the plans of the cellular carriers.
“[Wi-Fi is] one of those things where the reality exceeds the hype,” Patrick says. “The reason is that it embraces and extends and surrounds and goes under and over and around the Internet.”

Natural fit

Wi-Fi is on a path to true ubiquity, Patrick says, because it “snaps right onto the Internet.” It’s a complementary technology that we will one day consider as essential as Internet access itself. Whereas today we have spotty Wi-Fi access, Patrick foresees a world blanketed in Wi-Fi signals.
“If you want to walk in the park and just smell the roses, that’s great,” he says. “But if you want to be connected, and if you have a reason to be connected, then you should be able to do so anywhere. And that’s the way it’s going to be. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Because 802.11 operates in unlicensed bands of spectrum, Patrick says, all sorts of entities will play roles in making it pervasive. Not just profit-oriented companies but also noncommercial entities such as community groups and municipal governments will spread the seeds of ubiquitous coverage.
We see this happening already, of course. In the commercial realm, for example, there’s the high-profile company called Cometa Networks. A joint venture of AT&T, Intel, and IBM, Cometa recently announced plans to light up 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in the top 50 US metro markets by 2004.
As for grassroots endeavors, Patrick cites, for example, New York’s infamous “warchalking” movement and TurboWeb, a small company on the UK’s Isle of Wight. The latter uses 802.11 hardware to distribute a satellite Internet connection among island residents who would otherwise have no access options.

Mesh momentum

Wi-Fi’s spread is about to get a big boost from mesh networking, Patrick believes. The mesh concept, touted in various forms by companies including MeshNetworks, Etherlinx, and SkyPilot, differs from traditional cell-based topologies in that it spreads routing intelligence throughout the network. In essence, each access point and/or client device in a mesh network also becomes a router/repeater, greatly extending the network’s coverage area.
A company called CloudX is performing a proof-of-concept test for mesh networking with 802.11 technologies around Lake Tahoe, Patrick says. The company brings broadband into a community via a traditional method, such as a T1 line or a microwave link, but then extends that connection through the neighborhood using rooftop mesh routers.
If your brain has room for yet another “802.xx” term, Patrick believes that a new standard called 802.16 will help to accelerate the meshing trend. The standard, also known as WirelessMAN, defines a high-speed air interface for fixed-wireless systems operating in a wide swath of spectrum. In Patrick’s view, 802.16 will serve as a backhaul link connecting 802.11-based access networks to the Internet backbone. Service providers will use 802.16 to bring broadband into remote communities, then employ Wi-Fi mesh networks to extend access through those neighborhoods. “The advantage of 802.16 is that you don’t have to pull any cables,” he says.

Public speaking

As Wi-Fi coverage expands, so too will the number of devices with built-in Wi-Fi access. Already a standard feature on many notebook PCs, 802.11 of one flavor or another will quickly become a necessity for handhelds as well.
And if you think those Wi-Fi chips will only be used for “data” connections, Patrick has news for you: On an all-IP network, the distinction between data and voice is purely artificial. As he is fond of pointing out, “the packets don’t care” what they are carrying. Spreadsheets, email messages, and voice conversations all look the same. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, voice doesn’t eat a lot of bandwidth. “I keep telling people,” Patrick says, “that it only takes 6000 bits per second to have a crystal-clear voice conversation.”
The implications are clear, Patrick contends: Once Wi-Fi access points and Wi-Fi client devices are pervasive enough, VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) will catch on as a Wi-Fi application. Moreover, Wi-Fi VoIP providers will be able to undercut the cellular industry’s convoluted rate structures. After all, for a service provider running an all-IP network, the incremental cost of a long-distance call will be nearly zero, and “roaming” will be an antiquated concept.
Wi-Fi already delivers data rates far higher than any 3G network. When it delivers voice service too, cellular carriers will have reason to worry. “I think, unfortunately, that Wi-Fi is going to disintermediate the 3G and 2.5G cellular services,” Patrick says. Those technologies will have their niche, he notes, “but whenever you have a choice, you won’t use them.” Given this, Patrick says he’s not certain that wireless carriers will be able to recoup the investments they’ve made in 2.5G and 3G technologies and spectrum licenses.

History repeating

Overall, Patrick observes, the Wi-Fi space today looks much like the Internet in 1993. It’s a fast-moving area with solid standards and a strong grassroots component. No one is quite sure where or how to make money with it, and people have concerns over issues like scalability and security. Yet despite these issues, the technology delivers overwhelming benefits. And its ascent appears unstoppable.
Author Information
Special Projects Editor Matthew Miller ([email protected]) eagerly awaits his Wi-Fi phone. culater!