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Air Time: Location, Location, Location

Ask a real-estate agent for the three factors that most significantly influence the price of a property, and you're likely to get a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response: location, location, location. In the world of wireless networking, location-based services are emerging as one of the battlegrounds as wireless equipment manufacturers and service providers wrestle to differentiate their products and services.

A recent report from research and analysis firm In-Stat projects that the U.S. market for location-based services will increase rapidly in coming years, growing from about 600,000 to 1.1 million devices by the end of 2010. Most of these devices, which include both black-box hardware and GPS-enabled cell phones, are currently being used for specialized applications including fleet management, field service, workforce management and a variety of public sector applications. It doesn't take too much imagination to appreciate the business value of adding location tracking to a delivery or field-service vehicle. Such information can have a direct and positive impact on operational efficiencies and customer service.

However, when location-based services are added to an enterprise wireless LAN, some interesting questions -- ranging from return on investment to employee privacy -- arise. In a Wi-Fi environment, it is now possible to track client devices to within a meter or so of their physical location. Using 802.11 asset tags from vendors like AeroScout and PanGo Networks, companies can also track the physical location of assets inside their facilities. While labeling the current market as nascent, In-Stat projects that over 2 million Wi-Fi asset tags will be shipped in 2010.

Wireless LAN vendors like Cisco, Aruba and others are actively touting location services as the next big thing in enterprise Wi-Fi. Although off-the-shelf Wi-Fi systems provide basic location capabilities out of the box, vendors often charge more for the really good stuff and require a dense deployment of access points (APs) to achieve greatest accuracy. Third-party system providers like Ekahau and Wherenet are pushing add-ons that increase the accuracy of location-based services, and security vendors including AirTight and Newbury Networks are leveraging location services to enhance wireless security.

To be honest, I'm a bit skeptical about the overall value of such products and services. When I recently asked a leading WLAN infrastructure vendor to provide me with a compelling example of how the technology is being used to solve real business problems, I was told about the hospital that is using 802.11 tags to find the specialized diagnostic equipment that nurses hide in out-of-the-way places so it will be immediately available when needed. OK, to deal with the fact that a hospital doesn't have enough crash carts, you're going to spend oodles of dollars for a wireless tagging system that lets you find them? It won't be long before nurses are sneaking lead cloaking devices in the backdoor to beat the latest effort to thwart their evil ways.

Another common application relates to security. The linkage here is that location services allow you to identify intruders trying to attack your wireless network from outside your building while also allowing you to quickly track down the location of rogue APs inside your facilities. In both cases, it may be a better expenditure of time and resources to implement a robust, pervasive and secure wireless network. Doing so will remove the motivation to install rogue APs, and the enhanced authentication services will thwart hackers as well, whether they are physically located inside buildings or on the outside. In the process, you may be able to provide employees and visitors with secure wireless access in outdoor areas as well, an increasing requirement in education, government and hospitality markets. Sure, there may be some super high-security facilities where money is no object in pursuit of that last decimal point of security, but for most enterprises, I don't think so.

Like it or not, it's probably the case that before too long, sophisticated location services will be just another feature included with enterprise WLAN infrastructure gear, a natural by-product of the dense AP deployments required to meet capacity requirements. So even if you don't make a conscious decision to implement such services, you may find yourself dealing with the consequences. In the same way that law enforcement can subpoena e-mail records, at some point they're likely to ask for your location records to support a criminal investigation. In fact, it isn't too much of a stretch, in the current era of security hysteria, that some opportunistic politician will introduce legislation requiring organizations to track employees wirelessly -- all in the interest of national security, of course. Won't that be a lot of fun? When it happens, I hope I'll be basking in my dream home by the lake enjoying the freedom of retirement -- in a remote location, to be sure.