TECH TALK: Disruptive Technologies: 802.11b (Part 2)

The bigger and more lucrative market that both 802.11b and 3G address is that of wireless data – creating an envelope of anytime, anywhere access to information. As things stand today, 802.11b threatens to be disruptive to 3G with networks using the protocol coming up at various public places and in organizations in the form of Wireless LANs. (Starbucks is deploying 802.11b networks through MobileStar in its cafes in the US. The Hong Kong Airport has set up an 802.11b network in alliance with PCCW.) 3G is still some time away, and as much, may be too late given the way disruptive technologies tend to improve.

Writes SSB on the wireless data market and 802.11b’s impact:

The promise of wireless data also lies in applications related to inventory and logistics management, telemetry, tracking and security systems, etc. In addition, users will want the same high-speed access on PDAs and laptops that they now enjoy in a fixed line environment. Also, there is a strong chance that when people do access high-speed data in a wireless environment, they would not be doing so in a high mobility mode. Chances are that often the user would be in a nomadic or semi-mobile environment-an airport, hotel, coffee shop, in their office, a client’s office, or at home.

What 802.11b promises to do is infinitely fragment future wireless data revenues. As the cost of installing a wireless LAN in a commercial environment becomes too low to worry about, all the traditional industries likely will offer 802.11b as an add-on to their traditional businesses.

There are still many challenges for 802.11b. Writes Dan Briody in Red Herring:

First of all, there is no ownership of the network, which is always where technological communism breaks down. Second, it’s a fundamentally different type of network than cellular. As Forrester Research senior analyst Charles Golvin puts it, “Wireless LANs don’t make sense as a mobile solution, because they are primarily about laptops. The model for WLANs is portable; you have to pick yourself up and go to the place with the high-speed network. They are more complementary networks.” And third, because 802.11b uses unlicensed spectrum, there is no limit to the amount of networks and traffic that might be trying to use the frequency in a given area, and crowded networks will of course drop connections. All of this makes 802.11b LANs a self-limiting proposition from the start.

However, as disruptive technologies have shown in the past, momentum can make a big difference. There are enough investments going in to 802.11b to suggest that solutions to the problems will be forthcoming in the near-term.

802.11b makes good sense for emerging markets like India. Low-cost (under Rs 5,000) devices using 802.11b can serve as wireless data devices and can provide cheaper alternatives to PCs. 802.11b hubs can be set up in cybercafes (numbering 10,000 and rising) and at STD booths (over 600,000). Keeping in mind the trajectory of improvement in technology, it may not be surprising to find even voice carried over 802.11b networks. Wonder what then happens to the hundreds of crores being paid for cellular licences in India!

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.