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Next-Gen Wireless Trends

Advances in 4G cellular and roaming standards arepromising better performance and seamless interoperability.

Next-Gen Wireless TrendsEVEN THOUGH THE HYPE around up-and-coming wireless technologies can sometimesovershadow the reality, it's good tokeep an ear to the ground because at leastsome of what providers promise is going tohappen one way or the other. Right now,higher ed IT specialists should be payingattention to two emerging wireless trends:1) 4G (fourth generation) cellular and 2) roamingbetween WiFi and cell services. (By theway, if you were hoping to hear more about802.11n WiFi, that's now considered establishedrather than an emerging trend.)

4G: LTE and WiMAX Duke It Out

The fight between next-generation cellular technologies LTE (Long Term Evolution) and WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) continues. More carriers worldwide have announced they will use LTE, but WiMAX has been quicker to market and already has operational networks in a few cities in the US. However, in the high-stakes market of cellular technology it's not necessarily a case of winner takes all. During the upgrades to the current generation of cellular, for example, we saw GSM take over Europe, while CDMA EVDO predominated in the US. Since Intel is the primary backer of WiMAX, laptops will start to come with that technology built in alongside WiFi. On the other hand, it's also likely that inexpensive LTE USB plug-in modems will become readily available.

The timing of the widespread availability of the wireless signals is considerably clearer now than just a few months ago. LTE is being championed by Verizon Wireless, which has announced it will roll out LTE in 20-30 US cities/market areas in 2010 and complete its nationwide upgrade program by early 2014. WiMAX is being backed by Clearwire, which already offers the service in Atlanta, Baltimore, Las Vegas, and Portland, OR. The company plans to launch more WiMAX service later in 2009 in Charlotte, NC; Chicago; Dallas/Ft. Worth; Honolulu; Philadelphia; and Seattle. Meanwhile Boston, Houston, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, are in line for a 2010 startup.

Once rolled out, both LTE and WiMAX will provide significantly greater bandwidth than is now available. However, just how much more is one of those hyped-up topics, so we'll steer clear of spreading the figures that are being bandied about. If you're curious, you can check out the claims by heavyweights in the competing factions, Clearwire (spun off by Sprint) and Verizon Wireless.

Whichever 4G technology comes to your region, there will be implications for your campus. As the carriers install these network upgrades, your users will see better performance when using handheld devices (including smart phones and netbooks) to access internet resources as well as proprietary services provided by the cell operators. The first effect we can anticipate is that because users "have" the technology on their devices, they will expect access to 4G wireless everywhere, regardless of whether their particular carrier has completed its upgrade in your area. And since your team is the go-to resource for all technology on campus (wry smile) this may require some research on your part to find out which carriers have and haven't upgraded and keep your constituents informed. (It may be futile to ask those carriers that haven't upgraded when they plan to do so, as most times the local personnel don't know and the national personnel won't say.)

Another consideration is the use of 4G devices inside campus buildings. You might worry that higher ed institutions would need to install distributed antenna systems inside all or most buildings, which would be very costly. However, if users could "hop" from 4G to WiFi and back as they move around the campus, there would be no need to directly support 4G signals/frequencies within buildings. And that, as luck would have it, is the way things are headed.

If users could hop from 4G to WiFi and back asthey move around the campus, there would be noneed to have 4G signals within buildings. And that, asluck would have it, is the way things are headed.

Wireless Mobility and Roaming

Right now on campuses, the state of "hopping" among wireless networks involves one of two possible scenarios: The first is use when moving between adjacent WiFi access points (within a building, for example) and the other is the ability to maintain a connection when moving between a cellular and a WiFi network. Perhaps the latter would be more accurately termed "interoperability" as it refers to the seamless use of two dissimilar types of networks.

Both types of roaming involve "handoffs" that have associated hurdles to clear. In the case of WiFi point to WiFi point, it wasn't initially designed to handle truly mobile use (that is, use while moving, as differentiated from "portable" use, which can be defined as using a wirelessly connected device in one location, stopping use, moving to a new location, then reinitiating connection). In the case of moving among cell and WiFi networks, that currently requires devices to have two distinct radios, one for each set of frequencies. Manufacturers have found it fairly complex to develop a handheld device that can support two radios and have enough battery power to run for as long as users would expect.

Along the way some WiFi vendors and some smart phone manufacturers have created their own (i.e., proprietary) mechanisms to better support mobility and roaming, but that's meant that some combinations don't work well together. However, two quite recent IEEE standards-- 802.11r-2008 Fast Basic Service Set Transition and 802.21 Media Independent Handover Services (both published in 2008)-- should alleviate the handoff issue for both types of roaming. 802.11r takes care of voice over IP on the WiFi side and 802.21 deals with all types of mobile handoffs. Of course manufacturers will have to develop products that comply with these standards, and that's still an evolving story.

What's in it for you is that when these (hopefully) seamless handoffs come to fruition, higher ed institutions with widespread WiFi coverage can anticipate lower cellular bills when employees and students with campus-provided (or reimbursed) wireless devices can connect via your local WiFi rather than the cellular network.

Another upside could be that student-employee use of the carriers' networks for web/net access could actually lower the demand on your internal network infrastructure.

Of course, if your institution currently doesn't have that widespread campus WiFi, you may want to take steps now to get to that state. But first be sure to ask your preferred WiFi vendor about its support of the new standards. If you can purchase current products that will be upgradeable, then consider going forward now. However, if moving to products that support the standards will involve significant hardware changes, you may want to conduct a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether this effort is worthwhile now or whether it would be better to budget for it sometime down the road.

Whatever your current situation, it will pay to keep a weather eye on wireless mobility and roaming in your locale. Let's keep those highly mobile users happy!

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