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Mathias On Mobility: Wi-Fi Continues Its Advance

The recent finalization of the IEEE 802.11n standard spotlights the fact that wireless has moved up to the esteemed position of primary access for, well, almost everyone today.
Wi-Fi, over the years, has gone from toy to tool to pervasive necessity for consumers and business users alike. As is always the case in high tech, faster/better/cheaper has improved every dimension of the technology with new standards, meaningful interoperability, and vastly improved throughput, range, chip size, and battery life -- and has even enabled the wireless LAN to move up to the esteemed position of primary and even default access for, well, almost everyone today.

Among other benefits, mobility means convenience, productivity, and lower costs, and, today, with little if any compromise in performance. Who, today, would willing give up their mobile handset? The same is now true for the wireless LAN - WLANs are that good, and that essential.

This month has seen the finalization of the IEEE 802.11n standard, which, depending upon specific implementation, moves WLAN throughput to the 75-150-300-600 Mbps range. Of course, once Draft 2 of the 802.11n standard was spec'd by the Wi-Fi Alliance in 2007, the drama was essentially over, the floodgates were opened, and, except for a surprising number of very conservative buyers who insisted on waiting for the "real" standard, Draft .11n has been purchased in massive volume by consumers and businesses alike.

I've not recommended anything but .11n for the past two years-- that’s how confident I was that the final standard wouldn’t obsolete the Wi-Fi spec, and that has turned out to be the case. The Wi-Fi Alliance has announced its revised .11n spec will maintain full backward compatibility for draft products previously certified. The last barrier has fallen.

But it's not just about the higher throughput and additional capacity that .11n provisions. Wi-Fi is continuing to branch into new applications, most interestingly moving down the wireless throughput hierarchy to wireless personal-area networks, sensor networks, and even to the domain of RFID. Hundreds of millions of handsets with Wi-Fi, many using single-stream 802.11n, will ship over the next few years. "Wi-Fi everywhere" is really just beginning, and there’s no replacement technology even remotely on the horizon. Full speed ahead!

Wireless LANs are also moving out into the wide area, with carriers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless now wholeheartedly embracing the value of Wi-Fi. There was a good deal of speculation, and for a very long time, that the carriers just hated Wi-Fi because they feared it would take business from their primary networks. Well, as it turns out, the carriers in fact need Wi-Fi to augment even HSPA and LTE.

There simply isn't -- nor is there likely to be -- enough capacity in wireless wide-area networks alone to meet the demands of users who want the desktop Web experience, multimedia, and digital everything else for enterprise and personal productivity everywhere they go. Converged WWAN/WLAN implementations are the only solution that makes sense, no matter what the proponents of femtocells tell you. More spectrum, yes, even unlicensed spectrum, means happier users. And the carriers can turn a tidy profit on Wi-Fi in the bargain.

For Wi-Fi system vendors, the battle now turns away from convincing potential customers that the air is in fact reliable medium suitable for all manner of broadband to a discussion of WLAN system architecture, control-plane scheduling algorithms, and especially system management features and capabilities. And that’s where we expect to see the most innovation. Brute-force provisioning of throughput at Layer 1 is seldom sufficient, especially when one considers the nature of a shared medium like the wireless LAN.

So cleverness is going to become the differentiator, as the system vendors vie for dominance on an increasingly standards-based playing field. And, to get to the real point, volume enterprise deployments are going to involve a serious look at operational expense and life-cycle costs, not just raw performance, which is rapidly becoming the jacks-or-better just to get into the game. Successful vendors know that a seat at the table is easy – but taking home the chips involves a lot more than simply being fast.

Craig Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, MA. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows, and is a member of the Interop advisory board and is program chair for Mobile Business Expo.