LANs Without Wires

Wide-band LAN technology has started to take the Internet and corporate intranets places they have never gone before. The airline industry has started to deploy wireless LANs on jetliners to hook them into enterprise information management systems. Hotel chains and rental-car companies plan to deploy them to support mobile check-in and checkout operations.

Corporate information technology managers have started to adopt wireless LAN technology - which operates worldwide in the unlicensed 2.4-GHz band - as a viable alternative to Ethernet for support workers who don't want to spend their days tied to a desk. They're installing buildingwide or campuswide networks that support high-speed connectivity (up to 11M bit/sec.) for laptops equipped with wireless network interface cards operating anywhere within the 100- to 300-foot range of the LAN antenna, called an access point.

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Watch That Security!

Since all wireless LANs operate "on the air" in the same portion of the 2.4-GHz band, users, analysts and vendors suggest caution in installing and protecting them.

John Pescatore, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group, who formerly worked at both the National Security Agency and the U.S. Secret Service, says wireless LAN users must ensure that the built-in Wireless Equivalent Privacy (WEP) 40-bit encryption protocol is turned on after installation.

Pescatore estimates that only 20% of users turn on the WEP feature. "Without it . . . you are vulnerable to anyone who is motivated to overhear your traffic," he says.

The School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has operated a multibuilding wireless LAN from Brampton, Ontario-based Nortel Networks Corp. for almost four years and has a built-in dual-layer security system, says J. P. Garvin, the school's network services manager.

Each user is issued a key that has to be configured on the wireless access point as well as the client in order to gain entry to the network, he says.

Each wireless LAN card also has a hardware-defined address, which in turn is mapped into the server.

Wireless LAN manufacturers readily acknowledge the security problems with the IEEE 802.11B standard and have recently taken steps to beef up their security.

Jan Haag, wireless product manager at Lucent's Orinoco division, says that although his company ships its products with security features turned off - a requirement of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance - Lucent does offer 128-bit and "per-session" encryption based on public-key infrastructure.

John Drewry, director of product management at the wireless connectivity division of Santa Clara, Calif.-based 3Com, says his company also offers optional 128-bit encryption, as well as a new wireless LAN security feature based on the Remote Authentication Dial-Infuser Service protocol used to secure virtual private networks.

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Fine-tuning wireless LAN technology can also turn it into a low-cost alternative to a wired network serving remote locations. The county of Los Alamos, N.M., opted for wireless LAN technology as the quickest and cheapest means of linking its seven fire stations, police headquarters and utilities departments.

Having this network paid off in May, when a forest fire caused the evacuation of much of the city of Los Alamos, home to a U.S. Department of Energy nuclear weapons laboratory. Even when the local phone system quit, the wireless LAN worked.

Once a company equips its employees with laptops outfitted for wireless LAN connectivity, road warriors can tap into a growing number of high-speed public access networks being installed by at least three vendors worldwide. Wireless LANs operate globally under an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. standard (802.11B), which ensures compatibility among products from competing vendors.

This standardization was reinforced last August with the formation of the San Jose-based Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, whose members range from vendors like Dell Computer Corp. in Round Rock, Texas, and Compaq Computer Corp. to infrastructure providers such as the Utrecht, Netherlands-based Orinoco division of Lucent Technologies Inc.; 3Com Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif.; and Cisco Systems Inc. in San Jose.

The industry has gained so much momentum that Bob Egan, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., says he views this "as the year of the wireless LAN." Gartner is forecasting that wireless LAN revenue will total $487.5 million this year vs. $187.9 million two years ago, and that the total value of installed wireless LANs will be $35.8 billion in 2004.

While wireless LANs can support ubiquitous computing at close-to-Ethernet speeds, vendors, analysts and users all caution that a wireless LAN is definitely not a high-speed wide-area network accessible anywhere by anyone with a cell phone. (That technology will have to wait until cellular carriers deploy their third-generation networks, with widespread rollout not expected for three years.)

Users can typically connect up to 300 feet from a wireless LAN, depending on terrain and building type. Users who want wider coverage need to install more access points. Avis Group Holdings Inc. in Garden City, N.Y., for example, may use as many as 20 access points to serve its multilevel operations at the new San Francisco airport central rental car facility, according to Vinnie Luciano, a vice president at Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y., which is installing wireless LANs at about 700 Avis locations.

But high-gain antennae can extend the reach of wireless LANs to miles. Integrity Networks Inc. in Albuquerque, N.M., installed high-gain antennae and wireless LAN gear from BreezeCom Inc. in Carlsbad, Calif., to connect a fire station in White Rock, N.M., to the wireless LAN hub six miles away at the Los Alamos police station.

Los Alamos County information systems manager Mike Logghe says costs influenced his decision to use Integrity to install a wireless LAN for 3M bit/sec. connectivity among county buildings.

"[Local telephone company] US West presented me with a contract proposal that would cost me $5,000 a month to lease T1s [1.54M bit/sec. circuits] to do the same job," Logghe says.

Rick Bagley, a senior network systems engineer at Integrity Networks, says, "Our return-on-investment study showed that [it would take the county] only 12 to 14 months [to recoup] its investment."

When a "controlled burn" that was started by the National Park Service threatened the city of Los Alamos, Logghe says, "[the wireless LAN] was essential to the operation of the county." As the US West Inc. phone system in the area crumbled under the load, many county operations were managed via e-mail over the wireless LAN.

The flexibility inherent in wireless LANs allowed Logghe to quickly set up an emergency command center during the fire for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "We just put up an antenna at the school and got it up and working in three hours," he says.

Selling Points

The fact that wireless networks don't require extensive cabling is a key reason Montvale, N.J.-based Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc. decided to use them in more than 200 dealerships nationwide, according to Larry Roll, telecommunications supervisor at the firm.

"Mercedes dealerships are showplaces, and when you have marble walls or floors, you don't want to drill holes in them," Roll says.

The Lucent wireless LAN that Roll is installing is designed to support administrative and sales functions as well as vehicle servicing and repair - often housed in one or more buildings separate from the showroom, he says. One or two access points will usually cover both the showroom and shop buildings, he says, while running wires between buildings "would cost an obscene amount."

Although the up-front costs of a wireless LAN are higher than those of a wired LAN, he says, "once you move a person once, you've paid for it."

According to a recent Gartner Group study, the most expensive component in wireless LANs is the network interface card, which averages about $250 per device, compared with an average of $80 for a 10M to 100M bit/sec. wired network interface card. The cost for access points runs from the $1,000 list price charged by Tel Aviv-based BreezeCom to the more than $4,000 list price for Symbol's access points.

Despite these higher up-front costs, the Gartner report says, wireless LANs can be worthwhile "where utility, application and ease of use overcome basic fixed-cost issues."

Larry Kinder, senior vice president at Avis Group, says he believes the high-speed wireless LAN and advanced handheld devices the company plans to deploy "will enhance the customer experience. . . . [I]t's going to give the customer a very quick way to check in and return a vehicle."

Danny Hudson, vice president of distributed systems at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. in White Plains, N.Y., says improved customer service is what prompted the company's decision to test wireless LAN mobile check-in and checkout systems, with the first pilot system slated for activation at a Sheraton hotel in Parsippany, N.J., this month.

When lines back up at the front desk, Hudson says, he wants Starwood managers to be able to deploy wireless terminals to check in customers anywhere.

Airlines have started to embrace wireless LAN technology to manage aircraft. While it might seem a no-brainer to include the most expensive and visible asset of any airline - its multimillion-dollar aircraft - in an enterprise information management system, Ed St. John, a program manager for air transport systems at Rockwell Collins Inc. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says that until now, a lack of bandwidth and regulations have made it difficult to connect planes.

Air-to-ground communication systems can support only short, canned text messages. Regulatory authorities such as the Federal Aviation Administration have strict requirements regarding the inclusion of commercial systems, such as wireless LANs, on aircraft. But, St. John says, Annapolis Md.-based Arinc Inc., a global communications provider, has developed worldwide standards for aircraft wireless LANs that should eventually gain widespread adoption.

Rockwell Collins has developed an integrated avionics system that ties a standard wireless LAN on the aircraft into ground stations that are accessible only when the aircraft is on the ground. The firm is also working on a system that extends the aircraft wireless LAN via satellite to anywhere on the globe.

Condor, the charter airline affiliate of Deutsche Lufthansa AG in Germany, has installed a wireless LAN on three of its Airbus 320s. St. John says laptops in the cockpit that are equipped with wireless LAN cards tie the crew into the wireless LAN server, which in turn communicates via an external antenna with the ground access points.

The Condor A320 wireless LANs also provide e-mail service to passengers. And while their needs are less dramatic than those of people facing a wildfire, passengers may soon echo the words of Logghe.

When the wireless LAN kept going even when the phone system couldn't, "we became believers in the capabilities of wireless," he says.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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