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Last Updated: Friday, 2 June 2006, 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK
Changing the face of wireless

By Spencer Kelly
BBC Click presenter

A man using a coffee shop's wireless internet connection
Has wireless technology really given us the freedom it promised?
New technologies invariably arrive as the answer to all our dreams and then quickly turn into a nightmare of compatibility issues and specification disappointments.

When wi-fi arrived it was no different. It promised so much and then we discovered it was allergic to walls, windows, doors and people.

This did not stop things though. Wi-fi may not be entirely fixed yet, but there is little doubt it is incredibly popular.

Doug Loewe from iPass says: "The most surprising aspect is that, for example, we had about 5,000 wireless locations available throughout the world just a couple of years ago. Now we have over 50,000.

"The reason for that is that there are about 100,000 of them worldwide. Those hotspots have been proliferating because there is not only corporate demand, but also consumer demand.

"That is causing an explosion in the number of wi-fi hotspots available."

That wi-fi world is full of letters and numbers, a bit like the real world but a lot more complicated.

We are at the stage where we have to get it right, we have to cater for all the demands for the digital world
Rob Falconer, Belkin
802.11 tells you it is wi-fi and the letter at the end tells you what it does. For example, 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n.

Belkin's Rob Falconer says: "There has been an evolution of learning when 802.11b came out it was 'oooh, it works, look no wires'.

"What's happened is the digital world had caught up and demands 10, 11, 12 megabits per second throughput, and 'b' and 'g' and all its variants can't deliver that.

"What we will see in probably the year is the N standard finally ratified and curing the problems we see today."

Market demands

When wi-fi started, its range, speed and usability were all pitiful.

In June 2004, the IEEE started working on the N standard and two years on they still have not agreed anything.

According to their website, it will not be finished until July 2007 at the earliest.

Rob Falconer says: "It's committee syndrome. We are at the stage where we have to get it right.

"We have to cater for all the demands for the digital world, and it has got to ensure that every vendor puts a product on the market so that if a consumer buys brand A and brand B those two are going to talk."

Long distance

A new idea on the block is Mesh networking, where we cover towns and cities with lots of connected wi-fi like transmitters and bolt them to, for example, the tops of street lamps.

The whole trend of wireless for the last 20 years has been lower and lower power, shorter and shorter range, more and more cells
Guy Kewney, Newswireless.net
But there is also another new technology, and its going to make us all feel really good.

Called Wimax, it comes with the designation 802.16. It has a very large range and there are different versions of it.

Editor of Newswireless.net, Guy Kewney says: "There are three flavours of Wimax. There is the Korean one which is installed and going like mad, which they call WiBro.

"There is 802.16D which is meant to be A to B cable replacement and has been used by some of the train operating companies to get wi-fi into the train and phone into the train.

"And there is 802.16E which is designed to be mobile but hasn't been specified yet.

"The whole trend of wireless for the last 20 years has been lower and lower power, shorter and shorter range, more and more cells. The whole attempt of Wimax is to try and leapfrog long-distances, it's trying to reverse the trends."

So we have a wildly popular technology wi-fi that is only half delivering at the moment. An unproven technology, Wimax, which has not been deployed yet. And we have not gone near 3G, which is a different kind of wireless.

All this may sound confusing, but Doug Loewe from iPass loves all three.

He says: "I think you will see a combination of all three, wi-fi, Wimax and 3G, as a mechanism for providing an on ramp to the internet.

"I don't think there will be one that will win over another because they are very compatible."

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