Wireless WANs - Miles To Go for Manageability?

Are 802.11 wireless LANs 'descending into a valley of disappointment' or just working the bugs out? Experts disagreed at PC Expo/TechXNY.

By Jacqueline Emigh | Posted Jun 28, 2002
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At the PC Expo/TechXNY show this week, talk turned to controversies surrounding remote access from wireless PCs and PDAs. Vendors promoted new products and features supporting application access over WWANs (wireless wide area networks). As some observers see it, though, much time must pass before long-haul wireless nets are as secure and manageable as their internal, wired counterparts.

During conference sessions in New York City, speakers examined future 3G (third-generation) cellular nets, along with various fixed and/or broadband wireless solutions linking together 802.11 WLAN (wireless local area network) "hotspots."

Naysayers laughed off the viability of enterprise application access over future 3G, citing bandwidth, reliability, and coverage constraints.

High-bandwidth broadband wireless fared better, but critics raised concerns about costs on the service provider side, as well as over 802.11 security holes and interference problems.

802.11b users are already encountering interference from microwave ovens, in both home and office settings, according to Bob Egan, who moderated one panel discussion. Ultimately, 802.11a will face the same obstacle, he prognosticated.

Lars Johnsson, director of business development for Flarion Technologies, Inc., got quite gung-ho over Flarion's IP-based OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) WWAN technology, which was recently trialed by Nextel.

OFDM offers much higher bandwidth than competing CDMA, along with "end-to-end IP security and completely seamless wireless roaming," according to Johnsson, who went so far as to dub OFDM the "4G" (fourth-generation) cellular architecture

Another way to get high bandwidth is to build out multiple point-to-point fixed broadband wireless links to wireless LAN hotspots. This method, though, has proved very costly for wireless ISPs like Boingo and the former MobileStar, Johnsson pointed out.

"WEP (Wireless Encryption Protocol) doesn't work," according to Egan, who now heads up a company called Mobile Competency. Egan pointed to a document he produced more than a year ago, while working as an analyst for Gartner Group.

In the report, Egan predicted that, after a flurry of strong enthusiasm, 802.11 wireless LANs will descend into the "valley of disappointment." Egan's tips for better 802.11 security include establishing wireless VPNs and creating unique SSIDs (service set IDs), instead of relying on manufacturers' defaults.

During the panel session, Egan also maintained that the latest "watercooler chat" in corporate offices centers on "Look what I'm doing with my Palm!" At this point, though, PDAs go back and forth between being "secure" behind the firewall and "insecure on Yahoo."

Meanwhile, product announcements at PC Expo included a VPN client for Palm PDAs, plus an updated on premises, behind-the-firewall server from wireless ASP (application service provider) GoAmerica

SafeNet is producing the VPN software for Palm devices. GoAmerica's new Go.Web OnPrem 2.0, also rolled out at the show, adds a Web-based interface for activating mobile users and monitoring server activity. First available for Linux and Sun Solaris only, OnPrem now supports Microsoft Windows, too.

If OnPrem loses a connection, it can fail over to the IP-based Go.Web server in the GoAmerica Wireless Internet Connectivity Center (WICC), said Neal Katz, GoAmerica's director of product management.

GoAmerica's platform supports 802.11b hotspots, as well as Windows PCs and Palm, RIM, and devices running on CDMA, GSM/GPRS, CDPD, DataTAC, and Mobitex wide area wireless nets. Security features include Triple-DES encryption, SSL, and optional VPN support.

Earlier this week, HP threw its hat into the hotspot ring, with a soup-to-nuts plan encompassing WLAN implementations; WWAN subscription services; wireless applications; and 802.11-enabled PC notebooks and PocketPC PDAs.

Meanwhile, a number of other PC and PDA makers have been pledging further support for 802.11, either publicly or privately. Spokespersons for both Dell and Toshiba said their companies will launch PCs with integrated 802.11a/802.11b support by the start of next year.

"Frankly, though, we see 802.11a as more of a "home" play. The higher bandwidth will be good for supporting multimedia applications, for instance," said the Dell official.

Toshiba, also a Microsoft PocketPC OEM partner, recently shipped the E740, a PDA with 802.11b support already built in.

Likewise, PalmSource will make 802.11b an option available to OEM partners in the new PalmOS 5.0, said PalmSource CEO David Nagel, during PC Expo. One of the partners, Kyocera, makes a PDA "smartphone" designed for transmitting both voice and data over CDMA. Nagel also claimed that future editions of PalmOS will add more security and manageability.

"Security is more important on handhelds, and also probably easier to do," Nagel insisted. Future management tools for PalmOS will support the "unique characteristics of handhelds."

In conference sessions, speakers also tried to drive home the need for better management and security on WWANs. According to Egan, all too often, PDAs are still purchased by individual employees -- and then "expensed" -- instead of by companies.

End users shouldn't be "changing settings" each time they move to a different environment. "You don't want to be your own personal IT manager. That's not what you're getting paid to do," Egan urged.

Johnsson equated Flarion's OFDM with "DSL wherever you go." Unlike many other approaches, he said, OFDM can extend wireless coverage beyond wireless hotspots in hotels and airports, into offices and homes, for instance.

"Hotspot-to-hotspot is not a solution," according to Johnnson. "(Wider) coverage is important. People want it. Security needs to be very high, and (management) needs to be simple. If we can do this, the market will follow," he contended.


» See All Articles by Columnist Jacqueline Emigh


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