PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

802.11 is where it’s at

Dec 2002

While the world waits with bated breath for signs of life in the 3G cellphone marketplace, and especially waits to see just how many punters are going to be happy to get mugged by the network operators seeking to recoup their investment as fast as possible with the rumoured £1+/minute call charges for “high speed connections”, the USA has been swept by a wave of wireless internet access using the 802.11 2.4GHz standard (aka WiFi)

Standard 802.11B 11Mbit connections can be used by itinerant laptop users in many locations (airports, hotels, waiting rooms etc.) in the US and increasingly widespread in UK cities. With access points in places like coffee shops (Starbucks was a trend leader in the US), and the need for connections to the internet using cellphones at speeds that are going to be realistically around 64kBit (the suggested 2Mbit really isn’t going to happen), has been completely upstaged and bypassed.

802.11 has its limitations of course. It’s short range, 100m from an access point really is the very best case, and 30m is more realistic. The 2.4GHz band competes with many other devices ranging from cordless phones and Bluetooth devices to Microwave ovens, and although the Ethernet link is 11Mbit best case, the actual internet access is obviously limited to the onward bandwidth available. And for public access spots in places like coffee shops, these are mostly DSL-fed, so don’t get too excited about serious wideband access just yet. However, although there are some valiant effort to devise access controls built around billing and roaming solutions, most 802.11 access is provided free for those who look for it. Security on many publicly accessible access points is, of course, dire, although the industry in providing security for 802 is thriving and there are plenty of solutions for those of you who need another login and password to remember.

If you doubt the size of this phenomenon, then just go along to Google and type in “802.11 public access” and you will see why the telcos who have paid a lot of money for 3G cellphone spectrum are wondering why they bothered. And just as office workers tire of photocopying their bottoms for fun, so picture cellphone users quite quickly get weary of what seemed so funny for the first week – especially if they are picking up the bill.

So prolific is 802.11 in many US cities that users can get a free ride just walking down most streets, and the hobby of seeking out unguarded connections is getting sophisticated, with a system of symbols written on walls to indicate (inadvertent) 802.11 availability. This effect is also becoming quite measurable around London streets as more and more offices adopt 802.11 as an alternative to tethered network connections – albeit it is a retrograde step in terms of overall performance compared to a 100Mbit switched connection, convenience frequently wins – but if the main reason to be on the LAN is email and net access, then you are unlikely to have anything like 11Mbit onward bandwidth, anyway.

The 802.11 service is “licence free” in the UK for private and public area use in the Uk and most countries. There are many specific projects in urban areas for groups of user to get together and create community area networks using 802.11 – especially in locations where ADSL is not accessible. It’s possible to get 3kM range with a directional antenna and beam in from an area where ADSL can be provided.  The question of the ultimate legality of letting the passing world share your internet access is generally taken care of in the small print of any ISP contract. And the general view is that “thou shalt not” as usual, but the matter of enforcing this is generally quite impossible.

Established telecom providers such as Nokia are hedging their bets in the 3G fiasco and starting to get behind 802.11 with various equipment offerings aimed at public access solutions, and don’t forget that 802.11 is not just for laptops and computers. There are some phones already available that will look for and use a cheap internet connection with voice over IP via 802.11, in preference to the local GSM service at 20 times the price.

The big push started in the US during Q2 2001, and with unaccustomed alacrity, BT announced its plans in April of 2002 – even ahead (just) of the UK Radio Agency announcing relaxation of the rules that had previously hindered (legitimate) public deployment of 802.11. So why is BT – usually so reluctant to get its broadband act together – so quick to make a mark on 802.11..? Might it have anything to do with the fact that BT cleverly offloaded its 3G millstone along with the separation of the 02 business..? Nice one.

BT can afford to chuckle as the growing discomfort of those 3G operators who are growing increasingly nervous of the prospect that the early anticipated revenues from data might not now materialise. Let’s for their sake hope that the market for high bandwidth personalised ring tones, and high resolution (moving) pictures of the office wag’s arse, remains buoyant.