Cell carriers eye wireless LANs

Exploring dual-mode service for enterprises

Four of the country's largest cellular telephone carriers have started exploring how they can incorporate the high data rate but short range of wireless LAN technology into their nationwide networks, which offer wide coverage areas but low data rates.

Two of those carriers, AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless, said their initial focus is on the enterprise—figuring out how to provide combined wireless LAN and cellular data and voice services to large corporations, which have solidly embraced industry standard 802.11b wireless LANs during the past two years.

One such company is Landstar System Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla. The transportation services firm uses cellular data networks to communicate with its truck drivers. Patrick Wise, vice president for e-commerce at Landstar, called combined wireless LAN and cellular data service "a perfect world," if the carriers can find a way to integrate the two systems so that a user can automatically shift from one to the other.

But the carriers need to ensure that "I get connected to my network and not someone else's," said Wise. "We already have enough security problems with 802.11b networks."

Joe Burdick, telecommunications network manager for wireless data at United Parcel Service Inc. in Atlanta, is well aware of the cellular carriers' wireless LAN plans. "We've had presentations from [the carriers]," he said. But he said UPS is concerned about the implications for its plans to develop its own dual-mode terminal for use by its drivers.

That terminal will be designed to work on the UPS private wireless LAN network, but Burdick said he worries that the proliferation of wireless LANs will cause the driver's device to "wake up and seek out another network and server." If the carriers go ahead with their plans, it could lead to widespread use of devices that would automatically seek to log on to the UPS network, he added.

"I understand why [the carriers] want to do this," Burdick said. "But I don't see how they can resolve the security or [network] management issues."

FedEx Corp., meanwhile, has already equipped its carriers with dual-mode wireless LAN/ cellular devices. Ken Pasley, FedEx's director of wireless systems development, said he would be interested in a carrier offering that provided him with plug-and-play wireless capability in both modes. That, would require carriers taking on system integration tasks now handled by FedEx itself.

While the carriers emphasized that they haven't made any decisions about how or when they will build wireless LAN capabilities into their networks, they said manufacturers have already started work on the development of dual-mode wireless LAN/cellular PC network infrastructures, PC cards and phones.

Tom Trineer, vice president of multimedia strategy at Redmond, Wash.-based AT&T Wireless, said that some "very big" base station and handset companies have already started work on dual-mode equipment, but he declined to identify those companies.

Dave Williams, vice president of strategic planning at Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless, said that in addition to looking at using wireless LANs for data, his company has started to consider using them to deliver voice-over-IP service on corporate campuses.

Williams said Cingular is exploring how to provide users with the equipment and systems that would let them easily shift from corporate wireless LAN networks offering speeds of up to 11M bit/sec. on the 802.11b standard to the company's third-generation cellular data service, which can deliver speeds from 144K to 384K bit/sec.

Trineer agreed that such a dual-mode enterprise strategy makes sense and could provide corporations with the means to easily deliver data stored in enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management systems to mobile workers, regardless of their location or the speed of their connections.

Besides offering dual-mode network infrastructure and cards to enterprise users, Williams said, Cingular is investigating services that would allow enterprise users to easily roam and switch from cellular mobile data to enterprise and public-access wireless LANs.

Such LANs have been installed by companies like Richardson, Texas-based MobileStar Network Corp., in locations ranging from American Airlines lounges to Starbucks coffee shops.

As public-access wireless LAN networks proliferate—Austin, Texas-based Wayport Inc. is battling MobileStar in the hotel and airport markets—nationwide cellular carriers can provide in-house expertise to handle roaming and billing between multiple systems, as well as build in security on the back end, Trineer said.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., said the carriers are beginning to focus on wireless LANs as an adjunct to their networks for a host of reasons, including low-cost equipment, spectrum availability (wireless LANs operate in the unlicensed 2.4-GHz band, meaning the carriers don't have to write billion-dollar checks to the government for frequencies) and throughput that may never be equaled by mobile cellular data networks.

Plus, Mathias said, "wireless LANs are going to be everywhere—large enterprises, small business, transportation hot spots and the home."

Trineer said he views the unlicensed nature of wireless LANs as a downside because of possible interference problems. He also questioned the economics of the "hot spot" business pursued by MobileStar in airports, hotels and coffeehouses. Users, he said, "place a premium on ubiquitous coverage."

Verizon Wireless Inc. and Sprint PCS Group have also started to look at how they can mesh wireless LAN services with their existing networks. But spokesmen for both declined to provide details, saying only that they are exploring how wireless LANs can complement existing services.

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802.11x Wireless Data Service vs. Cellular Data Service
802.11x Cellular Data
Current speeds 11M bit/sec. (802.11b) 19.8K to 28.8K bit/sec.
Future speeds 2002: 55M bit/sec. (802.11a) Late 2001 to 2003: 144M to 2M bit/sec. (2M bit/sec. available only while stationary)
Coverage Corporate and academic campuses; public-access networks in airports, hotels, coffee shops Nationwide
Pricing Free on campuses; public-access “all you can eat” connections run $5 per session Per-minute charges; carriers decline to disclose pricing until rollout
Roaming Not available Available today; includes automatic billing and settlement between carriers
Potential Nationwide service at up to 55M bit/sec. and automatic roaming, with pricing following ISP model of $19.95 to $29.95 per month Nationwide service limited to 2M bit/sec.; pricing continues to be by the minute
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