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Opinion: Wireless carriers' dirty little secret

Opinion: Wireless carriers' dirty little secret

Wi-Fi, the IEEE standard for local wireless Ethernet, has proved itself in distribution centers, warehouse operations, and in health care. But now it is moving into corporate campuses, wireless hot spots, and even homes

Wi-Fi, the IEEE standard for local wireless Ethernet, has proved itself in distribution centers, warehouse operations, and in health care. But now it is moving into corporate campuses, wireless hot spots, and even homes. Despite its limited range, a Wi-Fi hot spot can certainly help you make good use of your time while waiting out a delay at the airport. And it certainly is in general more reliable than cellular.

But what if you want more than e-mail and want to roam farther than 150 feet away from an access point? Can cellular technology prove itself then? Will it ever be reliable enough to give remote users the confidence to access mission-critical applications without fear the data session will be dropped at the most crucial moment?

To hear AT&T Wireless, Cingular, Nextel, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon tell it, it's a fait accompli.

But not really.

I recently spoke with Ken Dulaney, Gartner's wireless guru. Here's his take on wide-area wireless networks: "If you build an application for real-time access using a wide-area network, you are asking for trouble."

The truth is, as wireless percolates up from consumer use to enterprise use, the wireless carriers will need to push QoS (quality of service) and other value-added services. But the task of pricing and managing high-volume traffic is extraordinarily complex. In addition, the carriers in the fixed-line world are accustomed to being wholesalers of broadband. And there is enough dark fiber available to make capacity almost infinite. However, in the wireless arena, the carriers have far tighter capacity constraints to manage.

Although GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) networks, used in the United States. by AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile, and Cingular, have greater global coverage than CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) networks, they have an even bigger problem: When roaming across the world, pricing models QoS rules differ from country to country. GPRS technology also has to trade off voice capacity for data capacity.

The challenge all the operators face a total lack of preparedness for the huge volumes that may result from corporate deals. If corporate customers increase the operators' business by an order of magnitude, wireless carriers will be saddled with massive QoS obligations and capital expenditures. Added to the uncertainty of the technology's capacity to handle far greater usage, the carriers are still trying to figure out how to deal with the enterprise because, unlike the telcos, they aren't accustomed to dealing with CTOs and CIOs.

The writing is on the wall, and perhaps the carriers aren't paying attention.

The SIs (system integrators) are already starting to package deals for the enterprise and are telling the wireless carriers that all they want is a pipe. "No need, Mr. Carrier, to increase your margins with your value-added services, thank you. We have it covered."

Over time, the differences between carriers will level out. Those that can't keep up will be absorbed by those who can, and the SIs will just shop around for the best deal.

Ironically, with limited capacity, the carriers will come to see the Boingos, WayPorts, and Cometas from the Wi-Fi world in a more favorable light as partners that will allow the carriers to offload both voice and data in high-density use areas rather than as rivals cannibalizing their business.

The reality is, the wireless carriers have no idea if what they deliver to millions of consumers can be delivered to millions of corporate users with the traditional five-nines of assurance. -- InfoWorld (US)

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