Wireless connectivity is, in theory, an attractive proposition for many organisations. It will, say suppliers, enable them to provide employees with pervasive Internet access to corporate systems, regardless of their location or the type of device they are using. In practice, however, wireless technologies continue to be hampered by problems of performance, maturity and price.
"Wireless LANs are relatively expensive and slow," says Alan McGibbon, managing director of network integration company Scalable Networks. "Are companies really going to overhaul their network infrastructure in order to allow employees to wander around the office with their laptop and still remain connected? There seems little point in sacrificing performance and security for what is at best a neat trick."
The gap between wireless connectivity in theory and in practice is the source of significant ambivalence among corporate users. A study carried out by Forrester Research found that FTSE 500 companies expect their average spending on wireless technologies to increase from £500,000 in 2002 to about £1.2 million in 2003. What the research also found, however, is that a third of the companies that are already spending on wireless technologies say they are unable to measure any benefits from these investments.
Out and about
The problems surrounding the performance and security of wireless networks are particularly acute for employees working away from the office, where different technologies from those used to enable wireless connectivity within offices are employed. Outside of the office, telecommunications companies are the main providers of wireless access, with the GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) standard looking like a promising step towards always-on 3G (third-generation) networks, at the expense of the floundering WAP (wireless application protocol) standard (see Wireless standards: the runners).
Using either a GPRS modem in a laptop, or a GPRS-enabled mobile phone or personal digital assistant (PDA), employees are able to access the Internet, even when they are not near a phone socket. As a result, the days of plugging modems into hotel room sockets may be drawing to a close – at least in the UK. The speed offered by GPRS, however, is only on a par with that offered by a 56 kilobits per second (Kbps) modem, and its availability is only as good as the mobile network to which the user subscribes.
Alternatively, a laptop user can connect their computer to a mobile phone using Bluetooth, a wireless, short-range system for connecting peripherals to computers. But Bluetooth-equipped systems are only just becoming available. "[Bluetooth] technology got off to a good start, but it was a year behind the original schedule when it came to market," says Dick Clark, senior consultant at systems integration company Consult Hyperion. "And there are a host of new concerns surfacing: concerns about the interoperability of devices, spectrum utilisation, costs and security. One might ask if it's worth bothering with Bluetooth at all."
According to Sara Gemmell, business director at outsourced business communications company Nextra, many organisations are answering that question with a resounding ‘No'. Bluetooth, she says, "isn't on the corporate agenda." Nextra, which conducts a survey of remote working practices each year, has failed to identify any organisations using Bluetooth among its respondents.
Clark, however, says it is too early to write off Bluetooth. "It's important to point out that Bluetooth does actually work. We have a variety of devices in our office and have been experimenting with them in various business scenarios. The basic set-up – using a laptop to get an Internet connection through a nearby mobile phone – works, though the connections are slow. A Bluetooth PC card for a laptop works much better than other interfaces – it's possible to imagine using them to swap files with a colleague on a train. But trying to set up reliable connections between different manufacturers' devices has remained problematical," he says.
Michael Wall, wireless research analyst at Frost & Sullivan, says that industry hype "exceeded reality and inflated expectations" during the early years of Bluetooth's development in the late 1990s. While mobile phone vendors have progressed Bluetooth's case well, he argues, operating system developers have been holding it back. "Support within the operating system is the key to guaranteeing interoperability between different devices," he adds. With native support in Windows XP just around the corner, according to Microsoft executives, the standard is due for a kick-start soon.
But once the ‘road warrior' returns to the office, the expectations for data access speeds are a lot higher. "Speed's still one of the issues for getting at corporate applications," Gemmell advises, citing the results of Nextra's surveys. "The perception outside the office is that dial-up or ISDN aren't that slow [given how remote the user is from its employer's corporate systems], but inside, [their expectations are] a lot different."
Inside the office, Wi-Fi is now the dominant standard for wireless networking. Similar to Ethernet, it operates at approximately 11 megabits per second (Mbps). Vendors such as Dell offer combined GPRS modem/Wi-Fi networking cards to make the switch between systems almost seamless; when the mobile officer worker enters the wireless network's range, the computer's operating system detects the presence of the faster network and automatically logs on to it.
But few companies have started implementing Wi-Fi yet – and many of those decisions have been dictated by an organisations' physical environment. "Many of the implementations we have seen have been for small workgroups who faced real environmental issues that inhibited a wired approach, such as large retail or logistics premises, and other buildings where traditional cabling is not always possible," says McGibbon of Scalable Networks.
"So far, wireless implementations are quite experimental," Gemmell agrees. "Wireless is seen in a few areas, mainly: schools, hospitals and retail outlets." One of the key barriers is security, she says: IT managers are worried about what data will travel across a wireless LAN, which they consider to be inherently insecure.
Wi-Fi supports Wireless Equivalency Protocol (WEP), which can encrypt traffic with a 128-bit key, but this has been shown to be relatively easy to break. An updated version of WEP is currently being devised. In the meantime, says Gemmell, Virtual Private Networks are favoured by security-conscious companies to prevent corporate data from being eavesdropping by hackers. She is confident, though, that the security flaws in WEP will be fixed.
While Wi-Fi is sufficiently mature that different vendors' products are able to use it to interact, Consult Hyperion's Clark says that incompatibility problems do arise. "One particular problem in our office is that interference between lower-powered Bluetooth devices and higher-powered 802.11 devices significantly reduces the range and speed of Bluetooth connections." So while a PDA might try to print to a nearby Bluetooth-enabled printer, it might find it has a better chance by joining the corporate Wi-Fi network. Either way, Bluetooth's use in anything other than personal peripherals looks unlikely to take off in a corporate setting.
For most CIOs, Gemmell believes, the benefits of wireless are in the lack of cabling, rather than flexibility of access. "In London and in metropolitan areas, we're seeing a lot more interest, particularly in companies that rent office space," she claims. Free of cables to manage and floor ports to provision and monitor, companies can cut costs and offset the far higher costs of wireless networking hardware (while an Ethernet card may cost only £10, a wireless networking PC card costs at least £70).
"Bluetooth prices have stayed stubbornly high," Clark complains. "Adding a Bluetooth sleeve to a Palm costs about $200 and to a mobile phone costs the same again: $400 to replace the infrared link between my Palm and my phone. Assuming realistic pricing, a Bluetooth earpiece and microphone for hands-free operation of my phone, and a Bluetooth card for my Palm would be natural purchases – once I was sure that no-one could listen in to my phone conversations from the next office or read my appointments calendar on the train."
For most companies, the argument for wireless networking is unconvincing. Costs are too high, speed is too low, security is too patchy, the technology lacks maturity and there are very few areas other than cabling where the benefits of wireless technologies exceed wired capabilities. Until the industry is able to show that wireless networks can be trusted and perform as well as their wired counterparts, the vast majority of organisations are unlikely to entrust their data to them.