802.11 East: Conference Take Aways

After posting and reviewing my conference notes (day 1, day 2) I thought it would be useful to jot down some key take aways from the event.

Wi-Fi Market Segments
Like so many technologies there are consumer and enterprise applications for Wi-Fi. But unlike most new technologies Wi-Fi seems to be flourishing in both segments concurrently. Enterprises like the flexibility and productivity gains they can achieve by giving employees easy access to network resources and services. Wi-Fi based VoIP phones are helping enterprises consolidate voice and data traffic onto a single digital pipe while saving money and gaining flexibility.

Consumer Wi-Fi adoption is being driven by growing broadband reach and dropping equipment prices. Enterprise penetration also helps raise consumer awareness of the technology. If anything is going to hold back consumer Wi-Fi adoption it will be the rising costs of broadband and the difficulty in actually getting a broadband connection.

Wi-Fi has had some problems with security concerns. First there was the discovery of WEP's weaknesses making the actual wireless link insecure. Then the press started publishing stories of people driving around looking for Wi-Fi signals. OK WEP has it's problems, but the security experts at the conference pointed out you are still more secure with WEP on than with it off. A bigger problem than WEP's security holes is actually getting people to use it. Similarly, individuals and enterprises worried about unwelcomed use of their Wi-Fi networks should create closed networks, but few actually do. Therefore the single biggest security problem isn't in the technology but in educating people on how to use it.

That said, the actual technology issues are being addressed by a number of standards (IPSec, 801.1x, etc) under development and more sophisticated network security and monitoring tools. Also as Wi-Fi gains acceptance in the enterprise market we're seeing IT/MIS departments rolling out policies and battening down the hatches as it were. The days of rogue Wi-Fi access points will disappear as companies step up to meet employee needs.

As a Wi-Fi user the most frustrating aspect of Wi-Fi is coverage. Ideally access points would become ubiquitous or at the very least easy to find. There are many initiatives under way to drive access point growth, some commercial and some grass roots.

On the commercial side you have companies like Boingo and WiFi Metro either aggregating access points or building their own networks. Pass-One and iPass are working on Wi-Fi roaming models that should help Wi-Fi operators offer national and international access. Commercial projects like these are for road warriors who value availability, reliability, predictability and security. These projects are important but I question if they can reach the scale required to make Wi-Fi easy to find.

In the long run I believe the mobile operators will be the ones to make Wi-Fi,to borrow a phrase from Dan Papes from IBM Wireless Services, "predictably ubiquitous". They have the skills and resources to go out and build networks with usable coverage. The challenge for them will be to integrate Wi-Fi access with their existing networks and billing systems. In my opinion the smart thing for an operator would be to build the Wi-Fi network first, offer tiered access packages and then put the access fees on the same bill as the cell phone bill. Many operators have online billing and customer care sites that require logins. Let Wi-Fi subs login to access points with the same login. The second phase should be to make seamless transfers between Wi-Fi and 2.5G/3G networks. It would be foolish to wait to roll out Wi-Fi access till the perfect network hand-off solution is in place. It could be a long wait.

On the other end of the coverage spectrum are community and open networks. People who want to share their connection with neighbors and visitors are doing it now. In dense urban areas like New York, and San Francisco community networks help drive awareness and fill a need for the casual user who wants access at the neighborhood coffee shop. The danger is that if these networks get out of hand, broadband service providers are going to crack down on subscribers illegally sharing their network connection. Also there is some concern about too many access points interfering with each other. In general I think community networks are a great idea and compliment commercial projects. The more access available, the better.

The most innovative approach to community networks is the one used by The Newbury Open Network. They have two access points set up on Boston's busy Newbury Street. Instead of charging for the network they see it as a goodwill gesture and a marketing program. In their opinion charging for access was more trouble than it's worth. Granted this network is small, but it works and it raises awareness for Wi-Fi and Tech Superpowers, the creators of the network.

It's still early days in Wi-Fi, but progress is happening fast. The key it to go out and build it. Know what you are building, why and for whom. This common sense approach should help meet everyone's goals.

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