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There is so much going on in the WiFi arena that it is hard to keep up — even if you are more than a little interested. I am using these updates as a way to share what I have been able to learn with some opinions and observations thrown in at no extra charge! Overall, things in the WiFi space look very much like things looked in 1993 with the Internet. Grass roots, standards based, things moving very fast, were the watchwords then and are today. Some say it is out of control and will fall of its own weight. It is comments of that nature that tell me there is no stopping it. One other thing I am quite sure of is that the major telecommunications companies are in for a much bigger surprise than they may think. WiFi has much more in store for everyone than any of us realize. This update will report on five areas.

  • The Government Gets Behind WiFi
  • Intel And IBM In The WiFi Game
  • Growing Like Kudzu
  • Trepia
  • WiFi On The Isle of Wight

The Government Gets Behind WiFi

One of the potential roadblocks to continued WiFi growth was a concern in the military community that WiFi would interfere with defense radar. A technical compromise was reached which will allow the spectrum to be diced up in a way that satisfies both the WiFi industry and the defense department. The resolution will apply to both the current 2.4 GHz band also the emerging 5 GHz band. Now that the technical issue has been resolved, Congress will hopefully proceed to enact the Boxer-Allen bill, which encourages the build out of broadband. Both Senators believe that WiFi will mean more broadband and that more broadband will mean more productivity and learning, especially for lesser developed parts of America. The global impact is even more significant.

Other government agencies are getting on the bandwagon. The Federal Communications Commission is talking about opening up unlicensed parts of the broadcast television spectrum for use by WiFi devices. This would put pressure on TV broadcasters to move to digital television more quickly. It would also lead to live TV programming on your laptop or handheld. Meanwhile the Navy is planning to put WiFi on warships so that captains can command their entire ship from anywhere on board. This isn’t for web surfing at sea. The Navy is planning to link sensors on gear such as pumps and motors with back-end integration to the core IT systems. Rather than stringing miles of cables to update ships with new equipment, they will be able to use WiFi to build wireless LAN’s at sea. The Advanced Encryption System will provide encryption to keep the data secure. The Navy believes that on-board automation of processes will make it possible to go from 300-man destroyers to 90-man destroyers.

Intel And IBM In The WiFi Game

Intel says that they no longer are going to talk about computers and communications devices separately. Their new Centrino brand of chips promises to make laptops run faster, weigh less, consume power more efficiently for longer battery life, and connect to wireless networks. Formerly code-named Banias, the new architecture will include chips for connecting laptops to WiFi networks. There will be other players in the WiFi PC space — including IBM. The ThinkPad was one of the first to include antennas that support both 802.11a and 802.11b WiFi. But there is more to the IBM WiFi story. Some don’t know it but IBM is a big player in the chip business.

IBM has been in the WiFi chip business for several years — a few layers down in the supply chain. Inside of the Linksys, Cisco, and other WiFi brands, there are WiFi circuit cards produced by companies such as Atheros, Intersil, and others. One of the components that goes onto the cards is a WiFi chip that comes from a semiconductor foundry. One of the largest foundries in the world is IBM Microelectronics.

Advanced silicon solutions from IBM Microelectronics power a wide range of devices. You’ will find their semiconductor products in the storage and servers supporting the enterprise; the networks that transport data and applications; and the pervasive computing devices used in the workplace, the home and in games. IBM groups their chip products and solutions into several areas. Pervasive computing — computing power freed from the desktop — includes products embedded in wireless handheld devices, set-top boxes, and residential gateways. Networking technology includes products for networking equipment, routers, base stations, and switches. The third category is Information technology which includes RAID controllers, storage appliances, and host bus adapters. Some of these areas include things we never hear much about but they are crucial to the workings of many things we depend on every day.

While IBM and Intel may compete in some areas, they are also cooperating in many areas. One of them is Cometa Networks, Inc. which was established in late 2002 by AT&T, Intel and IBM, along with Apax Partners and 3i. Cometa plans to provide wholesale nationwide broadband wireless Internet access (WiFi). Cometa Networks is working with telecommunications companies, Internet Service Providers (ISP’s), cable operators and wireless carriers, so they can offer their customers high speed wireless Internet access. Using WiFi technology, Cometa will deploy wireless access service at "hot spots" at major national and regional retail chains, hotels, universities and real estate firms throughout the top 50 US metropolitan areas. IBM will provide site installations and back-office systems and AT&T will provide network infrastructure and management. Cometa Networks expects to begin service this year

Growing Like Kudzu

WiFi is growing like Kudzu. In Georgia, the legend says that you must close your windows at night to keep it out of the house. WiFi is generating enthusiasm for consumers and even for the telecommunications industry. The technology is making its way into everything from phones to PDA’s to PCs to DVD players to battleships. Just like the early days of the Web, it is not clear where the money will be made. For sure there will be significant growth for wireless gear in the consumer segment. Again,
like the early days of the Internet, a lot of money will go into invisible infrastructure. Not just wireless access points that we find in homes and airports but also in more sophisticated devices that act as routers in addition to being wireless access points. Such devices will make it possible to form broadband neighborhoods. A startup in Lake Tahoe, CloudX, is already proving the concept around the Lake. CloudX hopes to bring broadband to many communities who would otherwise wait years for DSL or Cable service to come their way.

The CloudX idea is to bring broadband into a neighborhood using a T1, microwave, satellite, or other traditional method. Increasingly the "back haul" to the Internet will be by very high speed Ethernet. Then a connection is made to the first house via a long distance WiFi antenna and a rooftop wireless access router on the roof. Then house #2 installs a wireless access router on it’s roof — and so on. The packets get routed from roof to roof with those intended for a particular house making their way through a firewall and those intended for someone else making their way through the air from roof to roof to the proper destination.

There are doubters but early tests show this "meshing" concept can work. A new standard called 802.16 will likely make it spread. Soon we will think of it just like "hopping" that we depend on for cell phones. Numerous approaches are being tried around the world. Florida-based Mesh Networks licensed technology from the U.S. military and devised a method to enable WiFi traffic to be routed in whatever way is most efficient at any given moment. Another company, Etherlinx, uses off-the-shelf 802.11 hardware. They have been able to create a wireless service that can stretch 20 miles and be relayed from station to station. One set of the antennas can support 94 subscribers, each with DSL-like speeds of 256kbps.

Inside the houses there are going to be more choices too. Siemens has just announced their SpeedStream 2521 Powerline WiFi Wireless Access Point. The idea here is that sometimes a WAP doesn’t cover your entire house due to steel beams or other obstructions. The SpeedStream plugs it in to any electrical wall outlet and thereby provides an extension of the home LAN to any room in the house. The power-line network operates at speeds up to 11Mbps.


Trepia has a creative new idea — enabling you to instantly meet other WiFi users in your vicinity. Using patent-pending technology, Trepia discovers other WiFi users who are physically close to you by analyzing base-station access patterns. Other users will simply appear on your contact list, allowing you to communicate with them. The concept is to enable you to become part of an instant community where ever you go.

Suppose you are on University Avenue where there are five access points, each one only able to cover a fifth of the length of the street. Two people at opposite ends of the street would not see each other through Trepia, since there are no access points that both of them see simultaneously. However, as people move along the street, the Trepia client continually notifies the server when new access points become visible, and when access points go out of range. As a result, the server can discern from the time between events which access points are close to each other. For example if a user enters access point "A" at time 0, and then the same user enters access point "B" five minutes later, then access points A and B must be reasonably close to each other. As people move between access points over time, Trepia builds an internal map of access points which are close to each other. The result is that two people standing at opposite ends of the street will be able to see each other, since Trepia knows that the five access points are all next to each other.

The idea has potential. I can certainly envision it being useful at large conventions, university campuses, hotels, and cafes. Assuming there are other Trepia users at a convention for instance, any of the users could pull up the profile of every other user and decide to contact them through the application. When checking into a Hotel in a place you haven’t been to before, chances are you don’t know anyone there. However if there is WiFi coverage, and there are WiFi users running Trepia at the Hotel or in the vicinity of the Hotel, you could search for and contact other users who speak your language or have some common reason for being there. Dating applications seem like a natural too. Bryant Park in NYC is fully WiFi covered. People who are already there using their laptops can now see who else is in the park and potentially start a conversation. Obviously, there are privacy issues and considerations but Trepia seems likely to evolve. Very young people will decide how.

WiFi On The Isle of Wight

Lee Carter, from IBM UK Ltd., told me about a bunch of locals in one of the more remote parts of the UK (the West coast of the Isle of Wight) who pooled together to buy a satellite link to the Internet, then used WiFi technology to share the link between their homes. It was so successful in fact, that they’ve now set up a small company called TurboWeb, offering the "service" to other local inhabitants. WiFi is not just happening in America — it is happening everywhere.

TurboWeb says that if you live in a rural area you almost certainly will have no access to low cost broadband internet access. For many people the only access to broadband internet is by satellite. The problem with this is that it is typically three times the cost of ADSL/Cable services and the installation cost is very high. TurboWeb proposes that if a group of individuals want broadband, they can install a setup to allow sharing of single satellite connection. This will bring the cost down for each user. There may be some contractual issues with this approach but if the satellite companies are wise they will see the incremental revenue possibilities.