Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Tuesday, Jan 07, 2003
Info-Tech - Internet
Wi-Fi, the wireless alternative
WITH the delicensing of 2.4 to 2.4835 GHz radio spectrum recently by the Union Government, it is expected that India will witness widespread deployment of affordable broadband Internet connectivity, thanks to Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity). Wi-Fi is a wireless local area network (WLAN) technology that has already started revolutionising communication and is threatening to make inroads into the businesses of cellular operators and telephone companies.
Wi-Fi (also referred to as IEEE 802.11b technology) uses 2.4 GHz spectrum and operates at 11 Mbps that provides an alternative means of connecting to the Internet. A typical WLAN consists of setting up a fixed wireless base station transceiver (called "access point") that provides connectivity within an area called `microcell'. Typically, each base station is connected to the wired backbone so that users connected to the base station in a microcell are instantaneously connected to the information resources on the wired backbone.
The wired backbone can be an intranet having corporate server farms or it can also be the public Internet. Microcells may cover an office building floor, a work group area or it can be the whole campus of a university/institute. Users can instantaneously get connected wirelessly from their PCs, laptops or personal digital assistants (PDAs) having wireless LAN cards.
This innovative new network technology is being actively embraced by many academic institutions in the US. For example, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in the US, has deployed 500 Wi-Fi antennas, covering roughly 200 acres, providing wireless campus connectivity. Dartmouth is not alone. From Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh to University of California, San Diego, American University, Washington DC, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Minnesota and dozens of others schools in the US are deploying campus-wide Wi-Fi networks and creating an environment ripe for innovative explosion of this new network service. 2.4 GHz spectrum was never licensed in the US and is cited as the main reason for the large deployment of Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi was not considered as an economic alternative to wired LAN in India until recently. Apart from the high cost of base stations and WLAN cards, there has been an additional cost of about Rs 17,500 per year for the frequency usage for the first user and about Rs 4,375 for every additional user, before delicensing of the spectrum. These contribute to high capital and recurring expenditure per supported user. However, with increased adoption, prices of WLAN cards and access points are expected to drop considerably. However, according to the government guidelines, the 2.4 GHz is delicensed only for indoor use and the coverage area is limited to a single contiguous campus of an individual, duly recognised organisation/institution. Though educational institutions and corporate offices qualify, the restriction on indoor use poses lot of limitations for the large-scale adoption of Wi-Fi as an alternative to landline networks.
While Wi-Fi is perfect for academic institutions and browsers of the Internet, inherent security weaknesses of the wireless media has inhibited corporations from adopting Wi-Fi for transporting mission-critical and sensitive information. Wi-Fi alliance (http://www.wi-fi.com/) is actively working on improving the wired equivalent privacy (WEP) security standard as defined in 802.11 to suit the needs of corporate users.
Relatively less bandwidth offered by 802.11b networks is another reason why businesses have not actively considered Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi alliance is working on 802.11g standard, which is an improvement over 802.11b, that promises to provide up to 20 Mbps, using the same 2.4 GHz radio spectrum, thus providing smooth migration from 802.11b networks.
Wi-Fi has introduced new avenues for providing Internet access and has already started creating troubles for Internet and cable service providers in the US.
A breed of Wireless Internet Service Providers have started deploying Wi-Fi `hotspots' that tap on to an existing cable modem network or digital subscriber line of one paying subscriber to provide connectivity to multiple homes in the neighbourhood.
Starbucks has installed Wi-Fi antennas in its thousands of coffee shops in the US, providing Internet connectivity to its customers during "coffee-breaks".
The UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, recently indicated that developing world should actively harness the potential of Wi-Fi in bringing affordable Internet access to the masses. Media Lab Asia (MLAsia) is working on an extension of Wi-Fi that would provide low-cost and low-powered networking.
Delicensing the spectrum for indoor use is only the first step. Unless the spectrum is delicensed for limited coverage in external areas also, it is unlikely that this technology will reach the masses.
Given the recent bickering among various telecom operators, cellular service providers and ISPs in India, we can only hope that this new technology innovation does not get in to another controversy.
Can there be a repeat performance similar to the cable TV industry where local entrepreneurs have made inroads into 40 million households in the country in the last decade, thanks to low entry and licence fees and little regulation.
(The author is Associate Professor, IT&Systems Group, IIM Lucknow.)
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