Wireless Systems Design

Travel The Emerging WLAN World

During a three-week period earlier this spring, I flew on business from San Francisco to Newark, Ottawa, Brussels, Stockholm, Munich, Milan, Tel Aviv, Singapore, Shanghai, and a few minor transit points along the way. During my travels, I learned that it's now possible to find 802.11a connectivity at many airports, on board some airplanes and passenger ships, and in convention centers, hotel rooms, restaurants, coffee shops, rail terminals, and bookstores. I also found out that Wi-Fi access points and PC hardware usually work pretty well. Unfortunately, the same statement doesn't always hold true for the underlying infrastructure.

In Europe, I had some frustrating experiences. As I walked through the airport in Stockholm, I saw advertisements that promoted wireless-LAN service. I found a comfortable seat and popped an 802.11a card into my PCMCIA slot. Sure enough, a screen appeared from the local service provider. It asked for a login and password.

The local vendor was regrettably stuffy and rigid. It didn't allow travelers instantaneous gratification with a credit card. To initiate Internet access while waiting for your flight, you had to be a subscribing customer to one of its wireless phone services (or something like that) and have a pre-existing login. I called the telephone number displayed on the login screen and tried to negotiate with the company. There was no option, however, for someone who wanted only an hour of connect time to check e-mail and catch up on news. Later that week, I went through the same thing in Munich and Milan.

As my trip progressed from Europe to Asia, I landed first in Hong Kong. There were no obvious advertisements, but I decided to probe for a Wi-Fi signal anyway. Up came the screen and again, they wanted to know my login. But unlike the folks in Europe, the local Hong Kong provider allowed for credit-card login. It offered me one hour of use for about $5 U.S. So I pulled out my credit card, filled in the information screen, and pressed "Enter." An authorization came up for my credit information with a temporary login and password. Finally, my long-anticipated international Wi-Fi experience appeared to be just seconds away.

My joy ended abruptly when it became obvious that the login process was buggy. Even after my offer to pay and the local provider's acceptance, it failed to deliver the service as promised. I dialed the support number on my screen and asked how I could resolve the problem. The person on the phone asked me where I was. "Gate 34," I told him. He replied, "We will send someone to fix this right now."

Two very polite technicians met me at my gate 10 min. later. Even though it was crowded, we somehow found each other. At just the right moment, I waved my laptop with their screen login showing. I felt like one of those maniacs at a football game who have their faces painted green and their hair dyed purple.

The debug session started quickly. It was comforting to be so well treated, but there wasn't enough time. My boarding announcement came before I could log on to the Net.

I closed up my computer to board my plane. The support technicians went racing back to their office, which was located in the Hong Kong airport, to work on the bug reports that we had generated. They said that they might fix it quickly. So a few minutes later, I tried again from my seat on the plane. There was no 802.11 signal available, even though it was loud and clear inside the terminal 100 ft. away. Ironically, my cell phone worked well inside the aircraft. The Wi-Fi signal was just too weak.

Earlier, when I was able to acquire an initial signal inside the terminal, the wireless hub reported a 2-Mbps data rate. The login page came up spectacularly fast—especially in comparison to dial-up modems. I suspect that the overall bandwidth of these wireless nodes may be limited to a T1 or E1 connection. The actual transfer rates out to the world could therefore be limited to 1 to 2 Mbps, even though 802.11a, b, and g can theoretically work at 11 or 54 Mbps. Remember that Wi-Fi connections are shared, not switched. If these services catch on, the bandwidth may get choked up when we all start madly logging on during layovers.

In the various locales that I visited, I was fascinated by the differences in both cultures and attitudes toward technology. Asia is typically aggressive in adopting new technologies. But unfortunately, new technology doesn't always work. I perceive the Europeans to be very precise and analytical. Yet they're slower to adopt technology at the consumer level. As a result, the technology may not meet everyone's needs. But it usually works as advertised.

For non-mission-critical consumer technologies like Wi-Fi, I suspect that the best approach is the Asian approach. Put up the nodes and make a good-faith attempt to work out the bugs along the way. The fellows that visited with me at Gate 34 were clearly committed to the ambitious vision that was embodied in their service. They didn't seem surprised that things weren't perfect. And in my opinion, their willingness to work feverishly on a bug for someone whom they'd never met was world-class courtesy.

Much of the underpinning technology and standards definitions for data communications originate in the United States. But I am not aware of any domestic airlines with this level of on-board Internet access. Right now, I suppose one could argue that U.S. carriers have their hands full with airport-security and economic-survival issues. They're not focused on adding new premium services. Hopefully, this situation will start to change as the current clouds of world events start to clear.

The bottom line may be that the U.S. is falling behind in the race to expand network coverage within transportation environments. This issue should concern all Americans. Communication is central to human beings. Its technologies have been a driving factor in our growth. We have moved from the early development of language all the way to the digital Web pages and e-mail correspondence of today. As we improve our communications paradigms, we offer more people opportunities for increasingly rewarding lives and richer futures.

Some companies are actively promoting commercial Wi-Fi accessibility for people everywhere. They include AT&T, Boingo, Cometa Networks, Cisco Systems, FatPort, IBM, Intel, Internet Exchange, iPass, MobileStar, T-Mobile, and the WiFi Alliance. One of my colleagues related a story of one small Australian company that set up wireless access points on top of a downtown office building. Its goal was to share surplus T1 bandwidth with people walking down the street and sitting on bus benches.

In San Diego, a telecom industry group is providing free Wi-Fi access to people eating lunch at a public food court. There also are free-Wi-Fi movements on many college campuses. These are examples of people helping the world at the grass-roots level. One analyst calls it: "the peoples' broadband," "community broadband," "a free network for all," and "bridging the digital divide."

After I returned home to California, I subscribed to T-Mobile's wireless-LAN service. I've tested it out at Starbucks and other locations around Silicon Valley. It works pretty well. I hear that even McDonald's is planning to install Wi-Fi in some locations.

Wi-Fi is a great technology with tremendous potential. I want as much of it as I can get when I'm on the road. I invite other business travelers to join me in lobbying the airlines, airport managers, hotel operators, restaurant owners, bookstores, business centers, and other public venues for more ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage. If they need to charge us a few dollars per hour, so be it. Many of us are more than willing to pay. After all, when we're able to communicate better, people around the world will be able to understand each other and collaborate more successfully.

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