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June - 2008 - issue > Cover Feature
Wireless Accelerating Businesses Worldwide
Jaya Smitha Menon
Monday, June 2, 2008
We have entered a new era of business communications—one in which employees work and collaborate efficiently no matter where on the globe they happen to be. The key trend that is driving this evolution is the adoption of wireless technology. The ‘anytime, anywhere’ paradigm caught up rapidly with the enterprises, leading to a proliferation of the mobile workforce. Notebook sales has increased more than three times faster than desktop sales, and businesses worldwide are deploying wireless local area networks (WLANs) to support their mobile employees.

Wi-Fi technology has been steadily improving for some years, to the extent that many employees now rely on wireless as their primary data connection to the corporate network. Wi-Fi infrastructure for manufacturing and retail organizations, hotels, universities, and schools is already a $ 1 billion market, with annual growth in double digits. "It is now increasingly accepted that a well-designed Wi-Fi network is more secure than a wired LAN connection," explains Paramjit Puri, Business Development Manager, Advanced Technologies, Cisco Systems, India and Saarc. Likewise, millions of Wi-Fi phones are in use worldwide, demonstrating the maturity of multimedia over Wi-Fi technology. “In the past two years there has been a sea change in the perception,” explains Puri. The adoption of the concept of wireless as an extension to wired networking among the SMBs also gained ground. But large enterprises continued to rule the WLAN.

The Contributing Factors
Reduction in prices of WLAN equipment as well as end user access devices like the laptop was one of the leading factors driving wireless adoption. The market also benefited on the regulatory front. The government completely de-licensed the 2.4 GHz band of low power applications and technologies early in 2005 for their indoor use. This had an impact on the market growth in fiscal 2005-06. This led to the proliferation of the mobile workforce as enterprises increasingly realized the inherent productivity benefits that wireless networks can offer.

Today the enterprises are converting many of their infrastructure deployments to a wireless plane so as to provide agility and flexibility to the employees. Another factor, which led to the introduction of wireless technology in enterprises, is the need to give Internet access to the guests in the lobby or in the conference rooms. "Most of them were apprehensive about giving access to the wired network to an outsider," explains Puri. So enterprises started moving towards wireless slowly.

There was a major challenge to increase the adoption of wireless in enterprises. All the enterprises had a very heavy wired network already in place. Hence, when they thought about adopting wireless they were concerned about converging the wired and the wireless networks. But wireless vendors like Cisco, Aruba Networks, and Alcatel Lucent found a great opportunity here. They came up with unified wired and wireless network solutions that cost-effectively addressed the wireless network security, deployment, management, and control issues the enterprise faced. It combines the best elements of wireless and wired networking to deliver secure, scalable wireless networks with a low total cost of ownership.

Being a secure, scalable, and cost-effective solution, wireless networks offered mobility services, such as voice, guest access, advanced security, and location, which help organizations transform business operations. It also ensured a modular architecture that supports 802.11n, 802.11a/b/g, and enterprise wireless mesh for indoor and outdoor locations, while ensuring a smooth migration path to future technologies and services. This helped deployment of wireless networks along with the wired ones. A unified approach solved the issue of working simultaneously in wired and wireless environment.

Beyond Internet and Emails
From the applications perspective, WLAN forayed into more business critical applications in 2004-05. Even though email and Internet access accounted for over 90 percent of wireless usage, there was a beginning of a shift towards using WLAN for some critical applications as well. In 2005-06 this shift continued further as enterprises started relying upon the wireless network for their business critical applications. Some of the applications that are coming on the wireless network are inventory management, video surveillance, real-time data and point of sale.

Voice over Internet Protocol telephony had already taken the communications world by storm with its cutting-edge technology. And now with wireless technology, VoIP is getting mobility too. Wireless/WiFi VoIP offers the conventional benefits of regular VoIP, yet it will afford users the mobility of a cordless phone. This mobility isn’t confined to the enterprises, however, as it will work in a WiFi hotspot. If you frequent places that are WiFi capable, you may never need to touch a cell phone again.

The Edge to Small and Medium Enterprises
The availability of simple-to-use and more secure wireless solutions has created the opportunity to reduce costs and improve performance for many small and medium enterprises. Business problems once thought of as ‘business as usual’ are now being solved with wireless solutions. Earlier, inaccurate or inadequate information for field employees and logistics and manufacturing workers used to raise costs and reduce sales and customer satisfaction. But now they have access to accurate, real-time information. Field sales personnel will have accurate, latest product availability information, latest pricing information, sales presentations, or customer/competitor intelligence information. Field service technicians will be able to access correct or real-time information on a customer’s equipment, problem, or account. Delivery personnel can access real-time routing and customer information. Warehouse employees can access information on stock levels, ordering rates, and stock locations. Manufacturing workers have the option of accessing information showing build schedules, automation performance, and material levels.

Wireless technology enables IT managers in small and medium enterprises to avoid expensive cabling and wiring costs when reconfiguring offices and relocating employees. Installing a wireless system can be fast and easy and can eliminate the need to pull long cables through walls and ceilings. In many cases it is more cost-effective to install a WLAN than to install or add on to an existing wired network. Wireless networks allow workers to collaborate better and allow IT managers to deploy LANs to hard-to-wire locations. Wireless networks extend core networks and provide greater utilization of existing assets. Upfront expenses of the wireless network can be recovered in several cost saving areas; for example, dynamic environments requiring frequent moves and changes, adding network service to a new or temporary office, and adding connectivity to meeting rooms. Because managing the network and the mobile user can put strain on the existing help staff and infrastructure, wireless vendors now offer affordable user, device, and infrastructure management services that put IT managers at the center. Wireless systems can be configured in a variety of topologies to meet the needs of specific applications and installations. Configurations are easily changed, and range from peer-to-peer networks suitable for a small number of users to full infrastructure networks of thousands of users that enable roaming over a broad area.

Security, no more a Major Concern
Wireless adoption in the enterprise, widely seen as a productivity booster, till recently remained hampered by security concerns. Though the wireless market has been growing positively, enterprises were rather sceptical in its adoption due to the main factor: security. With the major players in the market bringing out highly effective and scalable solutions to ebb out the concerns of the enterprises that were skeptical towards moving to the wireless, the wireless market is growing at the rate of 30-40 percent every year for the last three years.

WLAN is deployed on two different environments; one is a huge deployment on hotspots where security is not looked upon as a key issue, and the second among enterprises for providing mobility among users where security is looked upon as a prime factor. But today adequate security mechanisms like MAC ensure that filtering and encryption are put in place, coupled with secure authentication, and intrusions are not easy. "Security options such as Service Set Identifiers (SSIDs), open or shared key authentication, and static WEP key offer a rudimentary level of access control and privacy," explains Rohan Deshpande, Associate Vice President, Wireless, Hungama.

The Next Gen Technology
This growing pervasiveness of Wi-Fi is helping to extend the technology beyond the PC and into consumer electronics applications like Internet telephony, music streaming, gaming, and even photo viewing and in-home video transmission. Personal video recorders and other A/V storage appliances that collect content in one spot for enjoyment around the home are accelerating this trend. These new users, as well as the growing number of conventional WLAN users, increasingly combine to strain existing Wi-Fi networks. Fortunately, a solution is close at hand. The industry has come to an agreement on the components that will make up 802.11n, a new WLAN standard, that promises both higher data rates and increased reliability, and the IEEE standards-setting body is now ironing out the final details.

"The 802.11n standard heralds a new world for enterprise wireless networks. 802.11n. It brings higher data rates, longer range, and more reliable coverage than previous Wi-Fi technology and represents a significant upgrade in performance. Not only will 802.11n change what you can expect from a wireless LAN, it will change how you think about wireless technology" explains Alok Kothari, Managing Director, Aruba Networks, India.

802.11n has proven that Wi-Fi can offer higher performance than most wired Ethernet connections: 802.11n access points available by the end of 2007 already started offering support data rates to 300 Mbps, superior to common 100 Mbps Ethernet connections. This 5x increase in speed over older Wi-Fi equipment removes the last serious objection to adoption of the all-wireless workplace concept, where no cables need to be run to individual desks and workstations. As a result of the adoption of 802.11n, the edge of the corporate network will finally become wireless. The primary benefit of 802.11n is its superior radio performance, allowing connection at much higher data rates with saturated coverage that reduces the ‘dark spots’ that are sometimes experienced with the poor coverage of legacy Wi-Fi networks.

Growth Scenario in India
The industry sees a substantial growth in the wireless market in India and this growth will be driven by all segments of industries as more wireless LANs are being set up by corporates. According to a study sponsored by the Global Wi-Fi Alliance and conducted by Tonse Telecom, the Wi-Fi market in India will grow to $ 890 million by 2011-12. Wi-Fi adaptation by sectors like realty, retail, infrastructure, and the Railways has created a great potential for growth. The Indian Railways recently announced that all important rail routes between metros would be made Wi-Fi-enabled together with 500 railway stations.

"Efforts are being made to expand the possibilities of wireless technology into rural areas also, especially in the medical sector," explains Sujit Singh, Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Microsense. Intel researchers, in collaboration with UC Berkeley and with support from the National Science Foundation, are helping the Aravind Eye Care System, a network of five hospitals in South India, in its quest to deliver affordable, quality eye care services to the rural poor. They are establishing a custom long distance, high bandwidth, and point-to-point Wi-Fi network that connects rural vision centers to Aravind hospitals. This experimental network will enable rural residents to have video consultations with doctors, eliminating the need for patients to travel to the hospital for routine eye care.

Wi-Fi hotspots are beginning to become a part of lead ISP marketing plans and some serious rollouts are being planned for this year. More second and third-tier hotels are expected to continue installing Wi-Fi facilities during this year. According to Global Wi-fi Alliance, India will witness innovative enterprise wireless business applications. One such example is the Roving Agent service where ground staffs of a domestic airline carries a Wi-Fi equipped device and prints off a boarding card for a traveler at a long line in the check-in counter. Or the convenience of paying petrol bills from the car via a credit card without having to walk up to the counter.

Another area that is expected to grow is Wi-Fi certification and testing services, targeting both Indian and overseas semiconductor, ISV as well as networking gear companies. Indian firms have already been developing Wi-Fi IP for the global market, and this sector will see further growth. The innovations developed in India will address local applications as well as global markets.

"We are still in the nascent stage. In my, opinion we have touched only the tip of the iceberg in the area of wireless technology," explains Singh. In short, the technology of hotspots driven by innovation is riding high on the growth curve bringing growth potential not only to the vendors and service providers but also to the entire economy.
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