Wireless Broadband Vs. Wired Services: Let The Battle Begin

Forget underserved areas: The wireless broadband industry is coming hard after the established world of wire-based voice and data services, according to panelists at Tuesday's morning sessions of the

April 20, 2004

5 Min Read
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Forget underserved areas: The wireless broadband industry is coming hard after the established world of wire-based voice and data services, according to panelists at Tuesday's morning sessions of the Wireless Ventures conference in Redwood Shores, Calif. (UPDATED, 12:42 PM)

In back-to-back panel discussions on Wireless LAN convergence and WiMAX, participants agreed that the wireless broadband industry is not merely targeting areas where wired services aren't available. Instead, its proponents claim that wireless broadband technologies and services will eventually replace wired offerings, leading to revolutionary shifts for providers, equipment vendors and users.

What follows are some quick blog-like notes of each of the morning panels, which covered WLAN convergence, WiMAX, and Voice over WLAN in the enterprise; we'll update after the lunch presentation from Microsoft as well.

WLAN/Convergence Panel

Participants:Roy Albert, VP and CTO, iPass
Mike Mulica, CEO, BridgePort Networks
Tad Neeley, managing director, RHK
George Simmons, CEO, Cibernet
Rod Randall, general partner, St. Paul Venture Capital (moderator)
All participants agree that Wi-Fi devices need to become commonplace (talking about Wi-Fi phones here) to really get the market started. But the business prospect of driving voice calls over IP is a huge attraction.

Question from Randall: Is Voice over IP the killer app for WLANs? Albert from iPass says 80 percent of its customers are enterprise users who roam. Said VoIP to softphones on laptops is a big draw for WLAN business, since most mobile knowledge workers are stationary (think travelers in a hotel or remote office location, or at customer site) and can take advantage of Wi-Fi access. Mobile worker (delivery workers) a smaller subset.

Simmons comment: It's going to take a lot of volume to drive this business, since collection and settlement technologies (for roaming between different Wi-Fi networks) need to have "significant volume to make economic sense."

Albert talks about a customer in England, retail operation with 1,000+ stores, where 80 percent of calls were store-to-store. They put Wi-Fi in every store, took cell phones away from execs. Such ploys offer huge cost savings, Mulica said. "There's a huge service provider agenda convergence coming," Mulica said. "And wireless is looking to take a significant part of existing voice and data business."

WiMAX PanelScott Ticer, VP business development, VentureWire (moderator)
Reza Ahy, CEO, Aperto Networks
Graham Barnes, CEO, NextWeb
Dixon Doll, managing general partner, DCM-Doll Capital Management
Edward Rerisi, VP research, ABI Research

Questions: Is WiMAX the panacea? What are the myths?

Interesting -- panelists agree most wireless data providers are not going to underserved areas, but instead are first competing against established wireline providers. Reason: enterprises are the low-hanging fruit (more dollars spent, more users in smaller area). Graham notes -- startup businesses need to get money as fast as possible. Harder to do in remote areas or to consumers/small businesses. "I deliver big pipes to businesses," Barnes said. "I'm not going after the real estate agent working out of a car."

Ticer, great question: "Wireless broadband has been the technology of tomorrow for a lot of tomorrows. What's different now?"

Why now? Economies of scale, technology improvements are making it a cost reality. Ahy -- now possible to offer 5 Mbps pipe into business for $500 a month. Barnes -- can deploy immediately, not in months. Rerisi -- standards-based equipment allows service providers to better forecast costs, swap providers if necessary.How can WiMAX providers break through? Doll has the quote of the day: Providers who will succeed, he said, "will be the people who figure out where to bring service into the marketplace in a way that the FCC can't screw it up." The constraints, rules, and "archaic infrastructure of the FCC is pathetic," Doll said.

Voice in the Enterprise Panel

John Verity, Contributing Editor, ComputerLetter (moderator)
Ujjal Kohli, CEO, Meru Networks
David Ladd, general partner, Mayfield
John O'Connell, CEO, Kineto Wireless
Robert Shostak, Chairman and CTO, Vocera

Question: What is and what will drive VoWLAN adoption? Ladd -- It's all about the applications. Panelists agree that first movers are verticals with mobile users -- "people who aren't at their desks all day." This includes hospitals, retail, warehouse and higher education. Kohli talks about a campus that gives students VoWLAN phones: "That way they don't have adds, moves and drops every quarter, plus they get long-distance traffic as revenue."

Panel also sees carrier model for VoWLAN provide a big pipe into a small company (who doesn't have its own IT staff), provide all data and voice over that pipe. Redirect in softswitch back at carrier, make money by being the middleman.Is quality of service a problem? O'Connell said his company shoots for as good as cellular quality. Said "QoS can enhance a service, but I don't believe it's a barrier to entry." Meaning: Users will put up with cell-like gaps if the cost is right.

Is it all about cost savings? Ladd said no, it's about applications. Tells story about insurance company spending $500k to put standard cell phone antennas in buildings on headquarters campus. "We do want our phones, and we want them to work all the time, anywhere," Ladd said. Others disagree, say costs are compelling enough to switch.

Shostak said Wi-Fi is being put in for data, if voice can be added "It's a bonus that leverages your investment." Kohli said on a "dollars per bit per megahertz per square foot cost," Wi-Fi comes out "an order of magnitude better" than standard cell implementations. Ladd counters: "It's not happening at Fortune 1000 companies."

When will there be ubiquitous Wi-Fi phones? O'Connell said "soon," predicts "not only are they coming, they will be cheap." Said Samsung already has a dual-mode Wi-Fi/GSM phone. "You'll see three to five of the top (handset) vendors with models by the first half of next year," he said. Kohli agrees -- said his company has seen, under NDA, 10 different Wi-Fi phones "that are half the size, use half the battery power, at half the cost" of existing IP handsets. Enterprises, he said, have figured out that half the cell calls made by employees are when they are on campus -- why not redirect over IP network you're already paying for?

EDITOR'S QUESTION: Does this quick-notes format work for you? Or do you prefer regular "news" type stories (which would be fewer in number and not posted as quickly)? Let me know, via email to [email protected]. Thanks!0

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