SUB: If I Had a ...
If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. That old axiom applies perfectly to today's WLAN market. WLANs are the mobility tool du jour because they provide excellent performance at dirt-cheap prices. So rather than ask if WLANs are the best tool for expanding wireless data services from the LAN to the MAN (metropolitan area network), we just start hammering.
Community network zealots are lighting up cities, providing free wireless Internet access and casting a blind eye toward their ISP service contracts and FCC radio regulations. Upstart wireless ISPs are hacking 802.11 devices, convinced they can leverage unlicensed spectrum and low-cost radios to deliver cost-effective alternatives to DSL and cable modems. And leading-edge technology companies--Vivato, for instance--are grafting smart antenna technology onto the 802.11 hammer, offering range and scalability improvements they claim are comparable to those that fiber and commodity switching provided back in the Ethernet revolution.
But at least some of these solutions may be hammers made of glass. They'll work fine as long as the nail isn't too large, but start pounding a bigger nail and your hammer is likely to shatter. Better to consider alternatives.
SUB: What Are My Choices?
Cellular carriers have been trying to convince us we should spring for the extra hundred bucks a month to reap the benefits of dial-up grade wireless data services, and maybe it's time to take them up on their offer. Their promise of full coverage in nearly every major metropolitan area can't be ignored. Still, it's tough to imagine a scenario in which current voice-overlayed 2.5 and 3G technologies can succeed, especially in the U.S. market, which is not only geographically immense but is devoid of a uniform standard. The technology is too slow and expensive and not nearly scalable enough to meet future needs.
It's also tempting to dismiss the major cellular carriers' current CDMA and GPRS data offerings, but don't. The dual assets of licensed radio spectrum and a vast cellular-tower infrastructure will likely prove essential for tomorrow's breakthrough wireless technologies.
Don't get me wrong--unlicensed spectrum is great, especially for high-speed intrabuilding LAN applications. We should applaud the FCC's efforts to increase its availability, and we should support all those innovators trying to build .11 hot spots. But using it as the foundation for a scalable, reliable metro-area wireless infrastructure based on existing 802.11 protocols is feasible only in our dreams.
Down the road the licensed wireless technologies being designed by ArrayComm, Flarion Technologies, IP Wireless and other vendors may prove to be the most viable wireless WAN technologies for the masses. Designed from the ground up to support metropolitan-area services, they'll leverage the existing cell-tower infrastructure to deliver data services at prices far below those of 3G, reliably and with coverage much better than that of .11.
Their arrival can't come soon enough.
--Dave Molta, firstname.lastname@example.org