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Not wired to the future

architech - Emerging wireless technologies promise fast, flexible and cheap networking. But how likely are they to succeed?

This will be a big year for networking and wireless communications. 10GbE, Ethernet, VoIP, WiMAX, 3G, UWB are some of the acronyms involved.

Maybe. You might think that futurology in the IT world would be a safe, even cushy number. In some ways it is: you check out what is happening today in Japan and there is your prediction for two years hence for this country. But it doesn't always work out that way because of the vagaries of fashion and because some things don't make it beyond the vivid press announcement. Whatever happened to last year's cheap paper phones, you wonder? Others don't make it because there is not enough potential profit or because they offer new, much cheaper ways of doing things which established companies want to make a nice little number out of for as long as possible. BT, ISDN and broadband spring to mind here. And anyway, it is often the case that the physical innovation is not what is being sold but the attached service: the computer printer and mobile phone markets are cases in point.

Another cause of IT unpredictability has been the unexpected, sometimes serendipitous interaction between technologies such as the PDA, mobile phone, modem and digital camera. Each of them had forged comfortably ahead along their own commercial paths until somebody realised they were capable of massive integration - and of generating interesting profits in this new configuration. And it is in this general area of computer communications that things are hotting up.

BT has already announced that over the next couple of years it will be moving its entire telephone system over to an internet protocol: it has recognised the threat to its traditional income from free or low-cost VoIP which, because it runs on the internet, currently uses the copper-wire telephone network that BT still profitably owns.

But with WiMAX that may change. Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, to give the full title of this high-speed wireless standard (it is a standard, not a proprietary system owned by anyone), is currently thought of as a wide area wireless network. That is partly because of the first letters of the acronym and because it can, when they pump the power up, operate over an 80km radius. So it is currently being seen as a solution to broadband starvation in remote areas where BT claims it cannot afford to upgrade exchanges in the conventional way.

That is surely important for the one or two hundred thousand people in the UK who are involved. But the really interesting thing for most of us is when WiMAX is used in towns and cities. It would work in the city at lower power and thus have a smaller spread - so there would be a number of inexpensive, unobtrusive WiMAX antennas distributed around a city, but a lot fewer than the current 3G masts.

Office and home networks would be connected to internet service providers via base stations - looking much the same as current WiFi base stations but without a connection to the phone jack. This much should be available by the end of the year. Already, early this year, companies will be able to install an external receiver dish and connect to an ISP at high speed.

Next year, when the chips have been designed, fabricated and tested, they will be put into mobile devices such as PDAs, notebooks, tablets, and WiMAX (and VoIP) phones to enable them to be usable across WiMAX zones.

All this seems to be to do with making phone calls. That is partly because the industry consensus is that to be credible any data distribution network must include voice. But it is of course also to do with computing, internet usage, data storage and data transfer as well as telephony - and at a relatively bearable cost. The prospect of companies recovering the billions they spent on 3G phone licences looks a bit dim in the light of WiMAX's very much faster data transfer speed, which makes streaming video, highquality VoIP audio and image transfer a doddle.

One scenario that has been put around is that the connection between office (and home) phones and the local exchange could become wireless via an urban WiMAX system.

BT probably won't have anything to do with this because it has said it is anxious to persuade people to use the fixed network once again - its research suggests that 30 per cent of all mobile calls are made from home and that one in five households have no fixed line at all any more. The giant nearmonopoly is encouraging a return to the lucrative past by developing a Bluetooth phone, the BT Bluephone, which will work, according to BT, 'within range of a Bluephone-enabled site' wherever that might be, most likely home, office and internet café. But, say industry observers, it is unlikely that BT's Bluephone will be any less costly than its VoIP or existing fixed service and it is unclear how it would work from a holiday home in the remote Camargue marshes. It needs to be said that mobile VoIP has hurdles to jump including solving the crucial issue for providers of how to charge for calls. Still, most of the big companies are nosing around these areas. That probably means we can expect the free or almost-free aspect of VoIP to disappear soon.

It is predicted that although security worries about wireless are real, acceptance in business is growing quite rapidly and by 2009 WiMAX will have picked up 70 per cent of the wireless technology market. Nothing is ever certain because an Israeli company, Extricom, reckons it can speed apparently doomed WiFi up to 1Gbps from the current top speed of 56Mbps.

A new set of initials has entered the world: GiFi. But there seems to be a kind of logic in using WiMAX for the citywide connection as well as for the office since it is simply a method and standard for transmitting data without wires. The likelihood is that users will use WiMAX for external connections and change to it for internal use when they carry out their regular equipment upgrade.

GiFi represents the kind of speed that some companies are accustomed to on their conventionally wired ethernet networks. But the appetite for speed and capacity means that wired 10 gigabit ethernet systems are becoming more popular, and not just among Soho animation houses and university particle-physics labs.

Companies with many staff moving over to VoIP, data storage and management operations, large-scale CAD facilities and the like are beginning to find that, although it costs, a highspeed wired network will always have a significant advantage over wireless.

In all these developments the technology lags well behind the idea - as does the tortuous negotiations over IEEE industry standards.

Compatibility standards are critical. Leading chipmakers are working on ultra-wideband (UWB) in which very low power signals are generated across a very wide spectrum. This is a kind of fast alternative to essentially room-scale Bluetooth, whose inventor, Ericsson, dumped it completely in September. But there are standards problems, and thus compatibility issues, which will hold up serious development until they are resolved. The year or so it will take WiMAX to get off the ground is to do with the time it takes to make and implement chips. Bluetooth has lagged because of the high price of its basic elements and their relative scarcity - only a few companies make Bluetooth printer adapters, for example, potentially the most useful pieces of kit in the wireless office.

What does a practice seeking to reequip do? Very little exists of the stuff that makes the above actually work.

And the roadmap put out by Intel about WiMAX chips and equipment is still a prediction. BT seems fixed on making VoIP as expensive as it possibly can, when its real selling point is that it is free or cheap. And the 3G people are talking about a 10 times faster Super 3G - whose infrastructure will need billions more. There is also a new three times faster 3G system being tested, but so far it is only for laptops with plug-in cards. The only consolation for the bemused is that the equipment you buy today will be obsolete next week, and that speed is not only good operationally but can also be fun.

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