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Preparing for the Wi-Fi downpour

The appeal of phones that use both cellular and Wi-Fi technology is obvious. But when is the wave going to hit your enterprise? And what do you need to do to prepare?

With recent product announcements from HP, Motorola, NEC, and Fujitsu, converged cellular and Wi-Fi networks have become the latest "hot topic" in the wireless industry. These multi-mode handsets and converged networks offer the promise of lower-cost voice, improved in-building coverage, and high-speed web access from your phone. If you're an IT professional, you know that when even the Wall Street Journal covers networking topics, you're about to start getting questions from your senior executives.

The appeal of phones that use both cellular and Wi-Fi technology is obvious. But when is the wave going to hit your enterprise? And what do you need to do to prepare?

First, the penetration of Wi-Fi enabled end-user devices is going to drive the adoption curve. In the enterprise, some early adopters ran out to buy and install 802.11b NICs in their laptops, but Wi-Fi really started to pick up momentum with the adoption of Intel Centrino devices and Microsoft Windows XP.

Most organizations weren't willing to spend hundreds of dollars to equip each user to connect to a Wi-Fi network. But when all your new laptops start to arrive Wi-Fi enabled, the pressure from users to install a wireless network starts to grow so intense that even the most curmudgeonly CIO can hardly resist.

The same thing will happen with Wi-Fi enabled phones. This will certainly take some time, because most corporations aren't going to go out and purchase thousands of new handsets for their users. But costs are falling so rapidly and mobile phones are replaced so frequently that corporations in the near future are going to reach a critical mass of Wi-Fi capable users. And when that happens, the IT staff had better be ready.

But, despite all the media attention, the availability and penetration of Wi-Fi-enabled phones is not the only -- and perhaps not even the most significant -- gating item that stands in the way of converged networks. The more important issue in the long term may be the ability or inability of enterprises to manage and deliver acceptable quality of service over their Wi-Fi networks. The truth is that very few organizations today are even on a path to get ready to support voice over wireless LAN.

I will confess that I hate my cellular provider with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns. I lose coverage every day at exactly the same spot on my commute home. I'm constantly getting interference that makes the person I'm talking to completely inaudible. And for some strange reason my phone mysteriously fails to ring a significant percentage of the time, so I miss calls all the time.

My cellular carrier stinks. But my carrier provides a lot better coverage and QoS than most IT organizations deliver on their Wi-Fi networks today. For too long, some IT organizations have focused only on the question of access control: who should be allowed to connect to my network and how do I keep intruders out?

These are obviously important questions. Yet, many of these same IT groups cannot even measure Wi-Fi network usage, uptime or signal quality, let alone deliver the reliable service that users will need for a voice network. Very few organizations can accurately identify where they have dead spots on their networks or unacceptable levels of RF interference.

This means that every network administrator needs to start thinking a little more like the Network Operations group at your cellular carrier. They need to understand the "footprint" of their wireless network, monitor usage patterns and plan network capacity accordingly. They need to measure signal quality and automatically detect RF interference that may affect users. They need to monitor roaming patterns and ensure that hand-off from one hotspot to another occurs seamlessly.

The good news for IT groups is specialized management solutions and tools exist to help them monitor and manage their wireless LANs. The time for them to start implementing appropriate management solution is now, before thousands of users with Wi-Fi enabled cell phones start trying to connect to their LAN… and start complaining that even their cellular carrier provides better service than their own IT group.


About the author: Greg Murphy is COO and Co-founder of AirWave Wireless. His leadership in business operations is backed by years of senior executive management experience in high-technology companies. Murphy founded AirWave following his work with Idealab Silicon Valley, where he had been both an Entrepreneur-in-Residence from December 1999 and Vice President Company Development. Murphy received his B.A. from Amherst College and his M.A. from Stanford University.

About AirWave Wireless: AirWave Wireless Inc. is the leading developer of network management software solutions that provide administrators a single point of intelligent control from which to monitor, analyze, and configure their wireless network infrastructure. Based in San Mateo, California, the company's patent-pending AirWave Management Platform(tm) software is sold through a global network of value-added resellers and systems integrators. For more information, visit the company's Web site at www.airwave.com.

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