Gone are the days when employees were tethered to their desks in order to fulfil their computer- or data-related tasks. These days employees are increasingly mobile and as a result are maximising the productivity of time spent in meetings or visits to other companies, thanks to wireless and mobile solutions. By unleashing employees from their desks, organisations can make huge gains in employee productivity. The solutions range from well-established fixed wireless (based on radio technology) through to the fully mobile cellular wireless offerings that are still evolving.
Fixed wireless has been around in some form for well over a decade, but proliferated in the last four to five years, to the point where it is now nigh on impossible to buy a laptop that is not wi-fi enabled. The solution itself frees employees from the confines of their desk or cubicle, allowing them to roam throughout the office premises or even an entire campus. Netgear’s Country Manager, Phil Presnall, explained that if you can meet anywhere with all the information and resources you need to make decisions, then those decisions will be made faster. Fixed wireless solutions, then, are all about improving the flow of information through an organisation, while the more mobile cellular wireless solution extends that flow of information beyond an organisation’s premises.
A survey conducted by IDC in November 2008 on mobility and wireless addressed the desires of end users and revealed their business priorities for 2009 to 2010. The results showed that businesses wanted, firstly, to reduce costs; secondly, to improve productivity and thirdly, to increase workforce mobility. “If you can match ‘increasing workforce mobility’ with ‘increasing productivity’ you have a far more compelling opportunity,” stated Rosalie Nelson, Research Manager, Telecommunications, for IDC, extrapolating from this data.
The same IDC survey also addressed what forms of wireless or mobile connectivity businesses currently use, or plan to use in the next year, with 47% of respondents using a corporate wireless LAN and 30-plus percent using mobile broadband provided by Telecom or Vodafone. Only 25% said they used public wireless hotspots and another 25% used wireless broadband such as that offered by Woosh or Compass as a fixed wireless option. As IDC’s Nelson said, and the above statistics demonstrate, radio-based wireless LAN is still the established technology within an office or campus environment.
When we look at wireless LANs, uptake has been strong and their advantages are well documented. Generally speaking, when employees are sitting at their desks they are more than happy to avail themselves of the wired network and its faster speeds; however, if they need the peace and quiet of a breakout room, a wireless solution allows them to move there with the minimum of fuss and no loss in productivity. Guests can also easily connect to the network and be more productive when visiting another’s offices, and meetings can be more productive through collaborative tools delivered over the wireless LAN. Infrastructure costs can also be reduced and Presnall suggested that ‘hot desking’, which can reduce costs because you can have more users than desks in a building, is made easier with a wireless connection. Not only this, but Adam Kleemeyer, Nortel’s Product and Solution Marketing Manager for Asia, suggested that other technologies that are not necessarily roaming devices but are difficult to run cables to – such as security cameras and RFID tags – can be made to run on the fixed wireless network, opening up another opportunity for resellers.
Kleemeyer went on to explain, however, that “the penetration or the usage of wireless within different types of organisations can significantly vary and a lot of it has got to do with the value proposition of the technology”. The productivity gains through simplifying and speeding up the flow of information within a ‘normal’ office environment are topped by the gains in other verticals such as hospitality, healthcare and logistics. “Organisations look to roll out this technology if it has a genuine business benefit and return on the investment,” Kleemeyer said. The hospitality industry in particular uses wireless as a revenue generating tool, issuing guest ‘keys’ with time or data caps attached, as well as using it for its operational requirements. The healthcare vertical is another heavy user because COWs (computers on wheels), IP phones and 802.11 handsets can bring the data to the people rather than vice versa. Equally the logistics industry may choose a wireless option in warehouses, where it can be difficult to run cabling, while the education sector, both tertiary and increasingly secondary, finds wireless networks invaluable for staff and pupils alike. SonicWall’s Channel Manager ANZ, Dean Redman suggested that, over the next couple of years, fixed wireless internet access may become a value-add in businesses, where customers may choose one café, for example, over another, thanks to its wi-fi connection.
There have, however, been a couple of issues concerning fixed wireless that have held customers back from a wholesale adoption of the solution, particularly in the corporate world. While D-Link’s Maurice Famularo, Marketing Manager ANZ, estimated that perhaps 50-60% of businesses have fixed wireless connectivity, he suggested that small businesses are more likely to adopt this solution than corporate, where concerns over security and standards can slow adoption rates, or mean that only a partial wireless solution is implemented.
“I think wireless has had an unnecessarily bad rap over the last couple of years,” Cisco’s Systems Engineer, Gareth Taylor stated, explaining that enterprise grade security has been ratified for almost four or five years. Indeed, Gartner came out with a comment back in 2005, saying that “from a technical perspective, WLANs are now considered secure – both through the adoption of IEEE standards and native improvements to the technology. WLANs have joined LANs as full members of “behind-the-firewall” infrastructure.” Wireless standard 802.11i (also known as WPA2) is the optimum security standard and has been ratified since around mid-2004 – according to Taylor there is really no excuse for a customer to be running without that level of security. “It’s either laziness or they don’t know, or more often than not it is because the client device they are using is too old to support it, but most modern laptops that are three to four years old will support the current standard.” Often all that is required to ensure optimum security is something as simple as a software update. SonicWall’s Redman did not quite agree, suggesting that there is still a long way to go with a lot of the encryption technology, as it remains really easy to hack into. He asserted that the best way to combat these risks was to provide people with the same style of security as that used for online banking. He conceded, however, that although wireless is always seen as a vulnerability in an environment, there are ways of securing it, so the solution’s success really hinges on channel partners advocating how a wireless network can integrate within existing security solutions. In fact, Taylor of Cisco observed he’s now talking to financial institutions that actually do want to be wireless, with one of the biggest motivations for this change being their desire to offer guest access – something that suggests institutions have much greater confidence in the solution than before.
The other stumbling block for radio-based wireless technology has been the different wireless standards. They run the gamut from the first iterations of 802.11a and 802.11b through to the now more popular 802.11g and the yet-to-be ratified 802.11n. Indeed, it is the fact that 802.11n has not been ratified that is stopping many larger organisations from implementing it, despite its advantages in terms of speed and reliability. Currently 802.11g is considered the entry-point standard thanks to its appealing price-point and solid technology, but 802.11n adoption is increasing, accelerated by the consumer market’s embracing of the new technology and its endorsement by large companies such as Cisco and Intel. Cisco has shipped well over 100,000 .11n access points and Intel has shipped 10 million Intel Centrino .11n clients, demonstrating the market’s readiness for the new standard. The 802.11n-enabled devices and access points are, of course, backwards compatible. Nonetheless, concerns in the business world surrounding the security implications of using a non-ratified standard mean that .11g access points are still very popular. According to Netgear’s Presnall they are relatively inexpensive to purchase and will provide good performance in environments where most of the traffic amongst users is web- and email-based (which is the vast majority of users).
Nonetheless there has been a steady adoption of the 802.11n standard; an adoption rate that is growing faster and faster every quarter. Cisco’s Taylor said “I think what you will see is a new wave of reliability and performance, which in turn should see a new wave of wireless applications; I guess you could call it wireless 2.0.” Even once it has been ratified, organisations are unlikely to make a clean cut to .11n; it will be more of an evolution and the older standards will continue to be used, particularly where existing devices cannot support .11n or where the heightened technology that the new standard provides is simply not necessary. Plus there is the cost factor, since upgrading to .11n will cost more than continuing to operate with existing access points.
Of course, fixed wireless is only one part of the mobility story, providing coverage within the boundaries of the office environment or campus. The challenge for wireless resellers in an increasingly converged and mobile market is to produce a wireless solution that addresses these business needs. Another recent IDC survey showed that over 80% of end users were using wireless and mobile networks to simply send and receive emails or access web content (which you can do over a very basic GSM network), while 40% wanted to access the corporate intranet. When it came to specific, highly-tailored solutions, such as location-based services, web or video conferencing, supply chain management and sales automation, only 10-15% (or even as low as four percent for some) required this level of solution. For many resellers, then, the wireless and mobility solution is predominantly about meeting the basic data needs of their clients both inside the office and once they have left its four walls. The best way to do that may well be a combination of a cellular wireless and radio wireless solution, or more specifically, as Taylor of Cisco suggested, a combination of wireless and 3G, depending on the application.
By combining 3G and fixed wireless in one solution, businesses can take advantage of the licence fee-free fixed wireless solution within the corporate office and the data capabilities of a paid-for cellular solution. As Nelson of IDC pointed out, we are seeing greater convergence of personal and business devices, such as the prevalence of iPhones and BlackBerrys, which are increasingly being used for corporate applications as well – something that is particularly useful in the small- to medium-sized business market. According to Nelson, these devices are really predicated around mobility, thus offering a greater freedom to roam. In New Zealand however, 3G coverage can be patchy, which is very frustrating, and the speeds on the network technologies we have had to date have not been as fast as on a dedicated network, plus getting in-building coverage is difficult.
Despite these drawbacks Nelson said: “I do think that mobile data and mobile services will increasingly encroach on what will traditionally have been perhaps a wireless market.” She further explained that feedback from a qualitative study of some large organisations last year showed that rather than looking for a specialist wireless technology, most of them found there was a steady increase in the uptake of mobility for a lot of their field communication requirements. “It wouldn’t necessarily mean they would be replacing their LAN and their wireless LAN equipment but, in terms of wanting to provide wireless solutions, they would be looking towards a mobility solution, particularly where things are not regarded as mission-critical,” she finished. While wireless LAN then, is the established technology within the office environment, Nelson suggested “there is an increasing move towards not making any kind of distinction between fixed wireless usage and what you need for mobility”. This will be enabled by cost efficiencies that come from dealing with just one supplier for mobile and telecommunications services, plus mobile operators have been really trying to drive the growth of the higher-value business voice and data applications (in terms of services like telemetary, GPS services and unified communications) and, of course, there is an increasing range of embedded notebooks and devices that not only have wi-fi but also 3G within them.
There are several inhibitors to the progress of this most mobile of the wireless solutions, such as patchy coverage and the cost of mobile data and its management. Both Telecom and Vodafone have been driving out their footprint for high-speed data services, which is effectively an upgrade of the 3G network to optimise the delivery of the data. This was reflected in Vodafone’s recent announcement, which led its Chief Executive Russell Stanners to suggest mobile broadband will be the broadband of choice in the future.Of course there is a cost associated with this, so solution providers need to be clear what their customer is looking for in terms of their connectivity, as that will obviously have an impact on the choices that they make.
While the mobile networks are increasing their capability to deliver downloads and uploads of data to their customers, IDC’s Nelson commented that “it is still a network that is founded on voice and it’s still a mass market network that is not necessarily dedicated to the provisioning of the business sector”. This is where she sees a wi-fi solution that is increasingly moving towards WiMAX could be very attractive because it is very much founded around the delivery of high-speed data.
Having said that, there is only one WiMAX trial site in operation in New Zealand and, although a number of parties bought WiMAX spectrum last year, we’ve not seen any large-scale commercial deployment. For all its advantages, WiMAX is a relatively new network and there would certainly be a cost in rolling out such a solution on any sort of large scale, as well as the need to overcome all the usual obstacles, such as where to locate the cell tower equipment and getting RMA approval, plus introducing and making easily available a range of embedded WiMAX devices.
Nelson commented that outside the office environment, “the business case for wi-fi has not been a particularly easy one”. This is a global truth and there have been a lot of countries that have wi-fi hotspots, but the ability to generate meaningful revenues as a business has been a tough one because a lot of people expect to access it for free or on an ad hoc basis, and this has been one of the inhibiting factors for any kind of national footprint in New Zealand.
However, Nelson sees one opportunity for WiMAX that resellers may like to keep in mind: this is the opportunity for connecting remote and rural areas of New Zealand where it is a very costly proposition to run fibre to the home. “That’s where a lot of the current market technologies are and where the opportunity is for services like WiMAX. Our view on the potential for WiMAX as a technology in New Zealand is that it does have a market and it does have a niche, but it will not compete as a mass market proposition, which was one of the prophecies.” But how any project would be rolled out in terms of installation, payment and business model remains unclear, since we have yet to see any large-scale operation being launched.
The future of wireless technologies, then, could look very different, since mobility solutions are likely to encroach further on what has traditionally been the wireless marketplace. We are, however, years away from moving from a wired network to a completely wireless or mobile solution across the board, because companies cannot yet get the speeds or reliability they need. In particular, mission-critical processes will remain on the wired network. The opportunity for resellers lies in the ratification of the 802.11n standard and in articulating the value proposition of a mobility solution, whatever form that may take, as well as bringing a level of uniformity of standards to businesses to enable better security and manageability.