Future of the Net

Global corporate networks might be turning the planet into a very small business world, but if they're going to live up to the demands of the next generation of Internet applications, they're going to have to make a quantum leap in capacity.

Demand for wideband networks to support applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, digital video and the global transfer of "fat" files such as engineering and design data will overwhelm those that don't evolve rapidly over the next several years, according to company network managers, analysts and telecommunications providers.

The growing demand for bandwidth is also driven by the transition of the corporate network from an in-house utility to a primary tool for communication with suppliers and customers via portals, the Internet and intranets.

The need for access to just-in-time information as a competitive tool also seems likely to drive deployment of wireless networks everywhere, from the factory floor to the delivery truck.

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Integrated Wireless

FedEx believes that the artificial dividing lines between its various wireless systems, mobile WANs used by its couriers, high-speed LANs used in its hubs and short-range Bluetooth wireless connections will disappear in the future. Currently, these systems don't easily mesh, but Jimmy Burke, vice president of network computing at FedEx, says the company plans to deploy devices that can easily switch between the WAN used by the courier while on the road and the wireless LANs the company uses in its hubs.

This is essential in Burke's view, because the company wants to tap the 10M bit/sec. throughput of the wireless LAN to help couriers download fat digital signature files or images scanned by cameras housed in the courier's handheld terminals. Burke said this will take a big strain off the company's private wireless wide-area data network, as well as a system contracted from Cingular Wireless in Atlanta that today offers speeds of only 19.8K bit/sec. Burke also wants courier terminals that support short-range wireless Bluetooth systems under development by mobile phone manufacturers, PC and handheld device companies worldwide. Burke says he believes Bluetooth technology has been overhyped, with products promised for delivery by year's end still displayed in the prototype stage at this fall's Comdex. But, he added, "Bluetooth is very close and should be ready within a year . . . and we expect it to become the hub of a handheld communications [system] that communicates back to the truck . . . and will let a courier make a pickup at a customer and then transmit a manifest to the customer's PC."

Richard Bravman, senior vice president and general manager of wireless systems at Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y., said his company is developing "dual-band" wireless terminals - handhelds or band-code scanners that incorporate modules that offer both Bluetooth technology and access to cellular networks.

The company is also working on another module that provides cellular and 802.11B wireless LAN access. Both dual-mode systems are slated for demonstration next year and should be ready for prime time when customers such as FedEx require such systems.

- Bob Brewin and James Cope
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