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Business case not yet made for wireless network roaming

A Norwegian company has solved one piece of the wireless roaming technology puzzle. Now comes the really hard part: making a business case to deploy such wireless systems.

The ability to roam among wireless networks has been touted as the wireless Holy Grail, the technology that will make business users and consumers alike suddenly understand why they should start paying for wireless data products and services. It just may be a bit premature to expect a breakout period for these systems anytime soon.

Birdstep Technology Inc., an Oslo-based company with offices in Seattle and London, has developed a key part of the wireless roaming puzzle: mobile Internet protocol. The company's Mobile IP client allows users to move among wireless networks and subnets without breaking their connections and having to log in again, said Trond Lunde, Birdstep's U.S.-based senior sales engineer.

For example, with Mobile IP, an executive downloading an e-mail attachment could move from a wireless local area network (LAN) to the wide area network (WAN) and back and notice nothing other than the changes in his download speed. Wireless companies are interested in furthering this vision of seamless connectivity. Motorola Inc., Proxim Inc. and Avaya Inc. teamed up recently to develop wireless roaming systems for voice over Internet protocol.

The problem is finding concrete uses for the technology today, said Scott Miller, director of research at the La Jolla., Calif., research firm ARS Inc.

One major U.S. financial institution, which asked to not be identified because of competitive reasons, has been testing the Birdstep product. It found that the product worked beyond its expectations, allowing users to move among subnets on the wireless LAN seamlessly, without requiring any re-authentication.

However, the company has no plans to deploy the product. For security reasons, the company does not allow its executives to use wireless hot spots, and today there is little use of wireless wide area networks to obtain e-mail. The business case just wasn't there, said a senior vice president responsible for wireless technology at this company.

That doesn't mean that there isn't a market for Birdstep's product, according to Miller. He said that there are some executives who need to always be connected when they are on the road, and many of those people loathe having to juggle a number of devices just to check e-mail. For these people, the idea of being able to always connect to the fastest network around is very appealing, Miller said.

For the rest of us, it may be a while.

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