PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

802.11 is in the air

April  2003  

Networking continues to be one of the areas of constant interest and development in an industry that is otherwise struggling to evolve in Bill Gates’ 1984 vision of uniform and drab similarity for all computer users and all applications. And in an echo of that famous 1984 Superbowl commercial ( , once again, the innovative (but otherwise mostly worthless) Apple set the ball rolling with the adoption of 802.11b and called it WiFi. In much the same way that IEEE1394 was branded as “Firewire” so as not to scare the ponytails.

(As an aside, why-oh-why can’t Apple simply grab at the accelerating Linux bandwagon and go for it as the focal point for anti-MS sentiment? It’s most of they way there with the latest operating system, and it would be the ultimate irony if Apple eventually got its leg over Microsoft by such an audacious accident.)

Although wireless Ethernet systems continue to storm markets around the globe, and the usual nervy types continue to fret (rightly) about security, but that doesn’t really deter the average home user who is still happy to use services like Hotmail and believe that their email is somehow confidential.  Standard wireless Ethernet is also scorned by wideband bigots, since it's "only" 11Mbit, in a world where gigabit Ethernet is now becoming de rigeur. However, since the majority of domestic users are deploying the technology to provide a link to their internet connections, which are rarely more than 500kBit, then it's not exactly the weakest link. And even given the best estimates of the most optimistic, it's going to be a while before a domestic internet service is going to offer anything to put a strain on the 11MBit (best case) of 802.11a

Recent moves in the UK mean that some channels in the 802.11a spectrum have been “de-regulated”, so 50MBit at 5GHz is also available.

Most users moving files around in a domestic environment are not going to find 11Bit a constraint, since the essence of wireless is to provide the laptop legions with virtual tethers to their email. And users currently wanting to edit the home movies and shift the various GByte files around by wireless, will simply have to be a bit patient, or get coppered up.

Is security a nightmare if there are snoopers within 50m of your laptop? No more so than when the internet is concerned, where most snoopers are several thousands miles away. 802.11 comes with a robust enough encryption scheme for those who want even more passwords and pass phrases to lose/forget – it's not perfect, but it does the job for normal people. If you want a tale of extreme paranoia, I recently saw that someone who had been watching too much TV was even proposing using a telescope and sensitive photo detector scheme to watch the LAN activity LEDs on switches and network cards. Yerrss...

Will the move to devise simple and cheap tools for spreading free-access 802.11 networks from pioneers like Jon Anderson and the £250 Locustworld Meshbox (, there is a real chance that public 802.11 networks will totally undermine telco expectations for 3G revenues from data services. Frankly, it's hard to see how it cannot, but I don't imagine those who paid HMG over £20bn for their licenses will be screaming at the government to "do something" about 802.11 just yet, because telcos are not legendary for their grasp of new ideas and technology, and most people working at telcos will have failed to spot the train coming their way. I heard one telco person suggest that people would pay daft amounts and still use 3G because of security fears – well, he obviously hadn't heard about a certain website that was intercepting and publishing pictures from unsuspecting 2G photo cellphone users. And most of these pictures were not snaps of the users’ pets, or their smiling visages: the "office photocopier" syndrome is rampant, as most people from the real world suspected it would be.  Moreover, there is only one thing that the wireless video from 3G is going to be used for (apart from Hutchinson’s sad “view the goal” application) and old ladies in Cheltenham will not be amused – but if it is right in the heart of the 20/30 marketplace that all companies are trying to milk.

If you are inspired to keep tabs on all this wireless progress, I also commend to you all, where the venerable Guy has his finger on the pulse of this happening scene. It’s a hotbed of information and subversion on the world of wireless and mobile computing from a UK perspective.

The biggest problem in this business is, as ever, the ignorance and hypocrisy that is rampant throughout the powers that be, both commercial and political. And since 802.11 has all the makings of the sort of unstoppable popular revolution (parallels with CB are not irrelevant) it is set to become an unstoppable social phenomenon that delivers Broadband Britain through the back door. In spite of both Government and Telcos.