A World Without Wires?

Communications and networking experts offer a glimpse into the current state of wireless technology—common applications, relevant codes and standards and obstacles to more widespread use. CSE: Compared with more conventional cabling, what are some of the advantages—and disadvantages—of wireless? CALOZ: When designing a voice or data network, the considerations are application,...

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett, Contributing Editor October 1, 2003

Communications and networking experts offer a glimpse into the current state of wireless technology—common applications, relevant codes and standards and obstacles to more widespread use.

CSE: Compared with more conventional cabling, what are some of the advantages—and disadvantages—of wireless?

CALOZ : When designing a voice or data network, the considerations are application, use, cost, quality of service and flexibility. With regard to the client, one needs to ask if the applications are high bandwidth and highly secure. If so, these criteria would tend to favor a conventional cabling approach.

If, on the other hand, flexibility and wiring cost are the major considerations, wireless has the edge. When the bandwidth requirements are intermittent and moderate, and security is not a major consideration, the client can achieve a lot of flexibility at a minimal cost with wireless.

BOYLE : Wired networks do offer an innate level of security, as a broadcast signal can be intercepted and decoded. But wires are generally not accessible, whereas wireless is broadcast over the air on standard unlicensed radio frequencies. That being said, even with wired equivalency privacy (WEP) encryption [that protects wireless local networks], the perception still exists that the competition is waiting just outside the walls to steal all of a company’s secrets.

Another disadvantage is that current wireless technology operates over a fairly low-speed shared topology. Consequently, like the good old days of hubbed 10 megabits per second (Mbps) Ethernet, the higher the user traffic, the slower the network.

LUPINACCI/SEIBERT : It’s true that wireless offers a much lower level of speed and bandwidth, and as speed increases, coverage zone decreases, requiring more access points. Wireless is also a shared medium, limiting the number of users per access point, and it may still have interference from competing frequencies in certain areas.

But there are advantages: mobility for users; flexibility to set up temporary work locations and processes; savings on renovations for hard-to-wire areas; savings on moves, adds and changes; and the eventual use of wireless Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

BOYLE : Wireless technology is also extremely portable. The best example of this is its application in schools. In the past, computer labs were large, single-purpose rooms, used for little other than computer instruction. But now, wireless communication technologies and laptop computers on a mobile cart—called ‘lab a la cart’—offer the possibility of multifunctional room use, and therefore, a better return on the building investment.

CSE: Besides schools, what other types of applications are suitable for wireless communication?

BOYLE : For all types of facilities, the first and foremost application is, of course, voice, in all of its iterations—radio, telephony, voice paging, etc. Corporate and retail applications range from inventory to facility monitoring and control. The hospitality industry, having wired the majority of its facilities in the late 1990s, is now providing wireless local area network (WLAN) access for its patrons. Medical facilities’ use of wireless is also increasing and will continue to do so with the advent of tablet computing for such things as keeping patient charts or prescribing medication directly to the pharmacy.

Law enforcement, using radio frequency WAN for connection to central computers, might use 802.11x LAN for communication between police cars and beat patrolmen, who are using tablet computers for everything from writing e-tickets and profiling suspects to tracking stolen property.

For the military, wireless will continue to evolve, along with advances in global positioning systems. Other military applications might include things like individual medical telemetering systems that allow commanders to evaluate health and stress levels of individual soldiers.

LUPINACCI/SEIBERT : Getting back to office applications, wireless is useful where there are a lot of roaming users or where project teams move frequently—in other words, where there is a churn rate above 30%. We also envision wireless for Internet ‘hot spots’: in cities; at universities for outdoor access to the network for students and faculty; or for traveling and remote workers who can connect at hot spots or via cellular.

CALOZ : In my experience, the decision is rarely wireless vs. wired. Often, the application is a wired environment with areas of wireless coverage. We are currently seeing a significant increase in the hybrid wired/wireless user. Here users will use their wireless modem whenever an outlet is not available, but will favor the outlet for its improved quality of service. However, consideration also needs to be given to power requirements. Laptops are portable, but require frequent recharging.

Common applications where flexibility is a requirement are spaces such as college campuses, cafes or malls. General office areas that are used intermittently, such as conference rooms and meeting areas, are good applications as well. Another popular use is facilities where people are more portable, such as sales or service locations.

CSE: What are some of the obstacles to more widespread use of wireless technology? Are there things that can be done to change the situation?

CALOZ : The obstacles are quality of service, power and the premium cost of laptops and applications that don’t require portability. Although quality has consistently improved, this is offset by higher and higher bandwidth applications and users’ needs for instant gratification.

If power distribution is required and the areas of use are fixed, wireless loses some of its economic advantage. The added quality of service offered by cabling and adjacency of power also make wireless less attractive. Having said that, we are seeing better battery life with laptops that draw less power and improved bandwidth with wireless modems. Today’s work environment requires a more mobile worker, so we’ll see more widespread use of wireless.

However, in the long run, the convenience and flexibility of wireless will assure its proliferation.

BOYLE : Lack of speed, range and security are undoubtedly the top three obstacles preventing wireless data networking from making copper-wired networks a museum exhibit. The integration of wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) and cellular mobile technologies will certainly improve the range and connectivity issue, and newer security algorithms will improve consumer confidence in the security issues—perceived or real—that exist with wireless data networks. Increased speed will occur in a matter of time as the technological and scientific communities continue to focus their energies on this growing industry. Increases in throughput are inevitable, and eventually, it will truly be a wireless world.

LUPINACCI/SEIBERT : The need to develop higher transmission speeds and ‘switched’ vs. ‘shared’ networks is an obstacle. There may be a need to increase the channels in the frequencies allotted as more and more mobile devices and applications become available.

CSE: What technological advances—if any—have recently appeared that would make wireless communication an even more desirable option?

LUPINACCI/SEIBERT : As multimedia applications increase, requiring a greater use of imaging, MPEG-4 video compression may help to move video images over the media and conserve the limited bandwidth.

CALOZ : IEEE amendment 802.11g will raise the data rate of IEEE 802.11b networks from 11 Mbps to 54 Mbps, increasing the quality of service and the number of users served by each point of access.

BOYLE : Certainly the move to the 5 Ghz frequency with IEEE 802.11a will make wireless LAN more desirable to those new to wireless networking or wishing to upgrade in the immediate future. Voice transmission standards for WLAN internet telephony or VoIP over Wi-Fi 802.11x will increase the demand for wireless LAN services. Recent developments in Wi-Fi security, like Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), might make the more timid corporate world willing to venture a little deeper into the world of WLAN. The integration of Wi-Fi (802.11x) and 2.5G or 3G (second-and-a-half and third generation mobile wireless communication networks) will expand the roaming connectivity of data networks and increase the demand for mobile communication services.

CSE: Describe any recent or planned changes to ANSI/TIA/EIA standards that would help or inhibit the application of wireless communication.

BOYLE : TIA is working through its engineering committee TR-41 to revise and create new standards to address VoIP over WLAN mobile terminals. This, by itself, could have a huge impact on the Wi-Fi and mobile communication industries. VoIP will allow for the use of lower cost Internet access for voice communication worldwide. The flip side of the coin is that broadly deploying this technology may require 2.5G or 3G mobile connectivity.

CALOZ : A revision to TIA 569-B is out for first ballot. It’s designed to facilitate access in multi-tenant buildings. The consolidation of space for building automation, and both wireless and wired technologies, facilitates access by service providers. This should aid in the proliferation of wireless technology in commercial office space. Also, the design of the spaces consistent with this revision will open up additional opportunities for wireless systems and the integration of wireless into an intelligent buildings approach.

And, TIA has put out a call for interest in drafting new health-care facilities standards for wireless, in addition to wired voice and data. With the numerous communication and imaging systems required in these facilities, the economics of a hybrid wired/wireless infrastructure will favor new wireless applications.

CSE: At what rate do you anticipate the use of this technology will grow over the next five to ten years?

BOYLE : I expect wireless data networking to reach near market saturation in that time. Computer manufacturers are currently building wireless connectivity into their portable computing platforms. Major chains—Starbucks, McDonald’s and others—are providing wireless connectivity for their customers. Many businesses have seen the advantages and are now looking toward second-generation wireless hardware.


James Boyle, RCDD, Associate, Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, Boston

Jack Caloz, P.E., Vice President, Service Force, Inc., Secaucus, N.J.

Jeffrey A. Lupinacci, RCDD, Telecom/Security, Designer, Brinjac Engineering, Harrisburg, Pa.

James L. Seibert, P.E., RCDD, Technology Team Leader, Brinjac Engineering