After many years of struggle, wireless LANs now stand a chance of moving into the horizontal market. Here’s a brief lesson for those of you not familiar with this technology.
Back in the early days of wireless LAN technology -- 1990 to 1991 -- fearless visionaries at places like Digital Equipment Corp. foresaw wireless LANs as a superb adjunct technology to wireline LAN products. In their view, wireless LANs would enable new capabilities, such as worker mobility and remote access.
The way this would work, from the wireless LAN perspective, was quite simple. Designated office areas, such as open cubicle spaces and conference rooms, would be wireless-enabled by the installation of radio frequency antennas. By taking this step, workers who were laptop-equipped could access their home network, including access to e-mail and server-resident documents, even though they were away from the office.
Note that this roaming capability -- as described -- is an oversimplification of the problem that had to be solved. While wireless LAN components such as wall-mounted antennas could provide LAN capability, they would not deliver the networking component on which mobility and roaming depended. That is why the engineers at Digital were proponents and supporters of networking technologies such as Mobile IP. Mobile IP was the invisible background technology that packets containing e-mail or documents used to travel from the home office network to the remote worker. Therefore, defeating the problem of mobility needed a one-two punch of physical wireless LAN technology components and a significant Mobile IP enhancement.
The wireless LAN market did not jump immediately into the vision described above. Without doubt, the slow downward death spiral of DEC contributed to this. DEC's demise meant there was no one champion to articulate this vision and deliver working, enterprise-class products.
Wireless LANs moved into a narrow, segmented market, finding acceptance in a few verticals, such as health care and education and in select applications, such as temporary offices and the wiring of historic buildings. Confined to these niche markets, wireless LANs stood no chance of hitting the forecasted numbers that anticipated wide acceptance and horizontal market deployment of this technology.
Now certain factors are once again putting wireless LANs on the track toward horizontal market deployment. Interestingly, SME (small and medium enterprises) appear to be one of the markets targeted for aggressive penetration. As described by suppliers, the low-end of SME is ideal for wireless LAN deployment. In this case, the argument in favor of wireless LANs has little to do with roaming. Instead, it has to do with traditional cost justification, that is, the costs associated with installing a wireless LAN versus the costs for a wireline LAN.
Those of you who know the price points for wireless LAN components know that a wireless LAN adapter for a desktop device is multiples above the price of a wireline version. So the cost justification argument being made by suppliers is not based on equipment prices. Instead, the cost justification claim is based on the savings associated with installation costs: That it is actually less expensive to install a wireless LAN when the cost of pulling the wire is factored into the total cost.
The interesting thing about this argument is that it falls down when voice is considered. After all, if you have to pull wire for a key system or PBX, it can't cost much more to pull additional wire for data. The wireless LAN suppliers have the perfect answer for this challenge: voice and data over the same wireless LAN infrastructure. This is a form of convergence not much talked about in the typical Voice Over IP discussion.
It remains to be seen whether or not an SME market really exists for wireless LANs. But if it does, this technology will finally find its first true path to horizontal market acceptance. --Sam Alunni is vice president of networking at Sterling Research (Sterling, Mass.). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.