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TECH TALK: The Real Wireless Revolution: Wi-Fi

March 14th, 2002 · No Comments

Wi-Fi promises to enable a grassroots revolution in wireless communications, especially for data. Its already happening in the US, where in offices and homes, one can roam around a limited area free from wires and still access the Ethernet (and therefore, the Internet) at high-speeds. The Wireless LANs are only one part of how Wi-Fi can be used. The real promise lies in the ability to string together many such LANs and build a wide-area network, just like the Internet was built in its early days. The difference: this one needs no wires, giving end users complete freedom and mobility. Since it uses open spectrum, this also means the costs involved in building this out are very low. This becomes the “commons” answer to the expensive 2.5G and 3G wireless networks being built

The New York Times, in a recent article (March 3), called this the “Corner Internet”. Writes John Markoff:

Modeled closely on the original nature of the Internet, which grew by chaining together separate computer networks, the technology – known as wireless mesh routing – is being rapidly embraced in the United States as well as in the developing world, where it is viewed as a low-cost method for quickly building network infrastructure.

If the engineers are right, the popular and inexpensive Wi-Fi wireless
standard, also known as 802.11, could serve as the wedge for the
next-generation Internet, enabling a new wave of wireless portable
gadgets that ultimately blanket homes, schools and shopping malls with
Internet access.

Currently most 802.11 networks serve as individual beacons that provide wireless Internet connections to portable computers situated within 200 feet or so of an 802.11 transmitter.

What wireless mesh routing offers is the promise of a vastly more powerful collaboration driven by the same forces that originally built the Internet.

Such networks do have the critical advantage of economy of scale. In contrast to the cellular data networks, in which every customer is an added cost, in some respects in wireless mesh networks the more users who join the better the network performs.

In the jargon of Silicon Valley, wireless mesh routing is potentially a “disruptive technology,” a new technology that is likely to upset the existing order by using the same powerful economics of cost and scale that initially drove the growth of the commercial Internet.

This disruptive innovation is what can potentially change communications in many emerging markets of the world like India. What is an “alternate” technology in the developed markets of the world can become a “mainstream” technology in India and help create it leapfrog into the latest era of high-speed wireless data communications.

So, what is Wi-Fi and how can it build the next generation Internet? The Wi-Fi family of protocols refers to the IEEE 802.11 standards for wireless Ethernet communications. The most popular variant at this point is 802.11b, which works in the 2.4 Ghz band, and offers speeds of up to 11 Mbps. The second variant just emerging is 802.11a, which works in the 5 Ghz band and can go to up 54 Mbps. Considering that today’s Ethernets run at 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps, and the other work that is also happening in the Wi-Fi protocols for higher speeds, in the near future there will be little difference between wired and wireless LAN speeds.

Tags: Tech Talk

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