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Features - I'll Have Wireless to Go, Please

By Chris Hayes, Published on September 20, 2004

 Chris Hayes is CEO of CourtEXPRESS, a national and international court access and document retrieval service using leading-edge Internet and telecommunications technologies.

Introduction

In the good old days, “wireless” conjured up images of grandma and grandpa sitting next to a large Philco floor-model radio1 console listening to Evening with George Burns or Big Band music over KDKA-Pittsburgh. Today, what is old is new again. Wireless is the hottest technology growing today. Everything from PCs, to cell phones, smart phones and PDAs are using public radio frequencies to bring messages, music and email to people around the world. If you think the streets of Manhattan are busy, you should see the nation’s airways and optical fiber cables.

Why Now?

So, if wireless has been around since the 1890s, why is it so hot today? What happened that kicked it into high gear? Computers and digital data happened. For most of the 20th century, analog radio waves were used to transmit sound, either over a radio, a telephone or a television. But computers needed to transmit data, data stored digitally as tiny on or off magnetic fields. Converting digital data to analog waves to fit on the existing telephone wires and network requires expensive equipment that only recently has become affordable.

It was easier to build new networks for communicating digitally than to adapt old ones. Over the last twenty years, most of us have participated in the Grand Re-Networking of America. At first we set up local area networks (LAN) using Ethernet cables to connect the PCs at the office. Then, we added a modem and a central “gateway” to Internet Service Providers (ISP) so we all could reach the Internet. Meanwhile, the telecommunications companies were digging up the street to lay fiber optic cable and were erecting powerful radio transmitter/receiver stations atop buildings and mountain ranges. Most recently, we replaced our modems with high-speed Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL).

And the process continues. Today, we are expanding our LAN into places that were impossible or inconvenient to wire using wireless LANs. We are upgrading our Palms to Zire or Tungsten2 handhelds that play music, take pictures and run video clips or we are replacing our PDA and cellular phones with BlackBerrys or Treos3 that accept voice, data, email, pictures, and video and connect to the Internet.

We embrace these new technologies and even become unwired ourselves trying to install them and figure out how to use them. Understanding how they work is usually something we don’t even attempt. For those whose frustration has not yet reached the boiling point, the following might make adapting to your new toys easier.

Wireless LAN (WLAN)

Currently, America is having a love affair with wireless LANs. Wireless LAN routers and network cards are easy to install and they have finally become fast enough (54 Mbps) to be acceptable to users and standardized enough to be acceptable to IT people. In additions, WLANS let people move around with their PCs and still stay connected. Their low cost and easy installation (in comparison to Ethernet networks which rely on cables and hubs), make them very popular for use in homes, in older buildings where cabling is difficult, and in institutions that previously could not afford widespread LAN access such as schools and medical facilities.

From a hardware perspective, a wireless LAN4 is composed of (1) an “access point,” (i.e., a router box for under $100) that attaches to the server and (2) a network interface card (under $80) inserted into the laptop or desktop (or you could buy a laptop with built in WLAN capability, as PCs using the Intel Centrino mobile technology have). On the server side, you tell the router the name you have given your network and the method (i.e., the “protocol”) your ISP uses for assigning an Internet Protocol (IP) address.

An IP address is a unique number assigned by your Internet Service Provider to identify your online session. Your ISPs gets a block of numbers from the American Registry for Internet Numbers and either assigns you a permanent, static IP address or assigns you a different, dynamically created IP address each time you log in. It is also possible for the ISP to assign your company a permanent IP address and your company to generate a unique extension for you when you log on to distinguish your session from another employee’s.

On the laptop side, you tell the card that you are connected to a network server (called an “infrastructure” by the software), give it the name of your network (called the “SSID” or Server Set Identifier by the software) and, as with the router, tell it whether your IP address is dynamically assigned or static (called “using or not using DHCP” by the software). Telecommunications is notorious for using acronyms for complex technical concepts and even more notorious for establishing “protocols” or standardized methods for handling every aspect of electronic communication. Consequently, hundreds of acronyms and protocols exist, some being more important than others. It is all quite necessary but it does baffle the layman. Only the most important acronyms and protocols are mentioned here.


Wireless LANs use low-level radio waves in the 2.5 megaHertz range to broadcast data in a spherical area, called a “cloud.” IT managers are more comfortable installing WLANs now that vendors have settled on using a standard networking protocol, IEEE 802.11, for splitting, packing, transmitting, verifying, unpacking and reassembling data. Products that conform to the IEEE 802.11 protocol can display the term “Wi-Fi.” Wi-Fi is short for “wireless fidelity” and it is a trademark owned by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA). Wi-Fi products are interoperable with other Wi-Fi products. That means IT managers are not locked into one manufacturer’s products and, thus, can bargain among vendors for the best price.

Wireless LANs have several weaknesses. Data moves much slower over a wireless LAN than over cable, but the speed is fast enough to satisfy most users. Also, the wireless signal can be weakened by thick walls and steel, and it becomes weaker with distance; however, more access points can be added to expand the WLAN to compensate for its small coverage area. Because the WLAN signal is so easily accessible, anyone with a WLAN card can pick it up. This make security and encryption extremely important.

Encryption is the process by which data is changed to make its meaning less obvious. Usually, a numeric “key” is assigned to each user. The user’s PC multiplies the data by a number, then the server divides by the same number. Both must know the key. The strength of the key is determined by how long it takes someone with a computer to decipher it. If a 56-bit key takes 10,000 PCs working together four months to decipher, it is an acceptable key for many applications. But, as computers get faster, encryption keys get longer and some double encrypt.

Hot Spots

Once you are out of range of your WLAN, you can stay connected using “hot spots.” A hot spot is any place where you can access a public wireless network. Airports, libraries, convention center and hotels—as well as more and more fast food restaurants and coffee shops—offer hot spots at a small charge ($7 -$10) or free as a convenience to their customers. Your wireless laptop “sniffs” for hot spots and displays a message when one if found. You simply click on the network name shown for the hot spot to connect to it. If you were so inclined, you could drive around your neighborhood and tap into your your neighbors’ wireless home networks. (This indiscriminate accessibility is why good encryption across the entire network—from PC to hotspot server to Internet to your company’s firewall—is so important.)

WWAN Cards

If you do not want to rely on hot spots, you could consider swapping your WLAN card5 for a wireless wide-area network (WWAN) card that connects you to the nationwide wireless network of one of the major telecommunications companies, such as Verizon, Earthlink, T-mobile, AT&T, Sprint, etc. You must subscribe to a monthly plan, ranging in price from $50 to$100 plus the cost of the WWAN card ($100-$300), to connect to one of their nationwide, “wireless” networks.”

In truth, most national wireless networks are hybrids of wireless radio towers and cabled connections, and the WWAN card is, essentially, a cellphone with its own phone number and IP address. (If you put a headset on your laptop, you can use the card as a cell phone. See the recent LLRX article explaining Skype, a Internet telephony application.) In a normal scenario, data is transmited to the nearest radio receiver (e.g., what we layman call a “cell tower” but the industry calls a “base station”), where fiber optic cables or high-speed microwaves route it to the Internet server. Because a WWAN communicates like a cell phone, it can easily move from one place to another without interruption. The signal is “handed-off” between cell towers as the user moves about.

Wireless Mobile Phone

If toting that big, heavy laptop is too much for you, you could switch to a “wireless mobile phone,” also called smart phones (about $600 plus cellular service and server software), which is essentially a digital cell phone, PDA organizer, pocket PC, and web browser combined—with a dozens of games and a camera thrown in for good measure. BlackBerry Handheld® from Research in Motion, Limited and Treo® from palmOne, Inc. are two of the most popular.

Most new wireless phones operate on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) system, a set of protocols covering the communication of voice, data, video and multi-media data developed by a consortium of over 600 mobile operators. GSM has been accepted in over 200 countries, which makes roaming around the world easier than ever before. It also means that the mobile operators finally have a robust platform and a cooperative forum for establishing protocols and creating new products. Each GSM phone has a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card that stores the customer’s identity and data files. The SIM card can be updated by the network operator—or even turned off in case of theft.

Wireless mobile phone have several weaknesses. The data transfer speed is slow—closer to a modem than a DSL line,—the display screen is small, has low resolution and has different proportions than a PC screen. Browsing the web over a smart phone is not the experience you might think based on the industry’s advertising. Wireless phones cannot run Microsoft or Netscape browsers or HTML programs, which most web sites use. They have microbrowsers based on the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and recognizes Wireless Markup Language (WML) programs.

Because of the need to convert everything to the WAP protocol, wireless mobile phones require special software that resides on your company server, behind the firewall, and communicates with your e-mail system. While different vendors offer different pricing breakpoints, the cost of the software depends on the number of licensed users to be supported and can run from $1000 to $5000 or more plus installation.



 


The telecommunications industry promises better, more powerful and more useful wireless devices in the future. Clip-on radio equipped tags, called Radio Frequency ID or RFID devices, are being deployed in hospitals to track nurses, doctors and patient charts to improve the speed of locating resources needed to treat a patient. Many of you already have RFID devices called “speed passes” for paying highway tolls without stopping, and soon we will use our cell phones to pay our lunch tabs. The telecommunications industry is fast evolving and the sky is literally the limit. No doubt, at some point in the not too distance future, we will hold our wireless cards and phones in our hands and fondly remember today as the good old days..


Disclaimer: This article presents information for the layman and is not intended as a primer on the complex field of telecommunications. Talk with an IT professional for full and in-depth information before making decisions about wireless applications.


Footnotes

[1] Philco is a registered trademark of Itaúsa Investimentos Itau SA. Philco declared bankruptcy in 1961 and was bought by Ford Motor, who sold the remaining Philco manufacturing plants in South American to Itaúsa in 1989. Itaúsa continues to manufacture radios and other products in Brazil and Argentina today under the name Itautec Philco. Itaúsa is listed on the San Paolo market under ITSA4.SA.

[2] Palm, Zire, Tungsten and Treo are registered trademarks of palmOne, Inc. (NASDAQ: PLMO)

[3] BlackBerry is a registered trademark of Research in Motion, Limited. RIM is listed on the Nasdaq Stock Market (Nasdaq: RIMM) and the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX: RIM).0.

[4] Linksys is a registered trademark of Cisco Systems. Also, Linksys is a division of Cisco Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ: CSCO).

[5] AirCard is a registered trademark of Sierra Wireless (NASDAQ: SWIR) (TSX: SW).