Wi-Fi surges ahead at work, on campus

Biggest driver likely to be video apps, including video chat

Wi-Fi in the workplace and on college campuses is all the rage, having moved from nice-to-have five years go to essential technology today, according to analysts and several IT directors.

Some network managers are already deploying bandwidth-hungry IP television over wireless LANs, including networks using the faster 802.11n wireless specification, which was ratified last September.

In a recent report, research firm IDC said revenue from sales of enterprise wireless LAN gear, including access points and routers, continued to outpace revenue from Wi-Fi access points sold at retail to consumers last year. By the end of 2009, the enterprise wireless LAN revenues of the 10 largest vendors and several smaller ones totaled $1.7 billion. That number was down from $1.8 billion in 2008, reflecting the global recession, but fourth-quarter sales were up 4% over the fourth quarter of 2008.

Also, IDC saw a dramatic rise in sales of 802.11n hardware, which accounted for 38% of all Wi-Fi products sold in 2009, up from 18% in 2008. The ratification of the 802.11n standard opened doors for some new customers who had been holding back, IDC said.

Tod Caflisch, vice president of IT for the New Orleans Hornets basketball team, expects to launch 802.11n by the start of the NBA season next fall inside the New Orleans Arena, which has nearly 18,000 seats. Currently, the Hornets have about seven 802.11a/b/g access points (AP) and several wireless LAN switches from Motorola Inc. to serve the media covering games. That equipment is both inside the arena and in media areas.

Caflisch said the current network can offer a minimum 100Mbit/sec. throughput, which would be enough for the 400 or so reporters on wireless laptops who would be on hand to cover games if the Hornets make it to the conference finals or beyond.

"When I arrived in 2007, a lot of the NBA teams had wonky Wi-Fi solutions that were not very secure," he said. Working with Motorola, which ranks third in enterprise sales with a 7% share of the market, Caflisch developed a secure system that protects against wireless interference from four other wireless LANs in the building. Those LANs support everything from ticket bar-code scanning to outdoor lighting.

The Hornets' wireless LAN can control access with unique user names and passwords, detect virus-like activity and automatically shut down rogue APs, he said.

An expansion to 802.11n could allow more flexibility, and perhaps even support mobile marketing applications that would do things like push video highlights to smartphone users in the arena, Caflisch said.

Those might sound like big plans, but Caflisch pointed out that they're not as ambitious now as they once might have been, since Wi-Fi is better understood and accepted these days. "Five years ago, wireless was a big deal and now it's nothing" to evaluate and deploy, he said.

Video usage will be the biggest driver of Wi-Fi expansion, a theme that has been pushed by Cisco Systems Inc. executives. Cisco is No. 1, by far, in terms of enterprise Wi-Fi sales, with market share of 56%, according to IDC, although the company's sales in that segment slipped 10% last year, to $953 million.

"There will be high demand in IP video services, so that's a very good strategy that has helped Cisco," said Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group.

"The future of all TV is in IP and not in broadcast," Mathias added, noting that when he consults with IT shops, he always asks what their plans are for video. "If they don't have it in their plans, we tell them to put video in there."

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