Wireless networking

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Wireless networking is a type of wireless communications technology which conforms to the IEEE 802.11 wireless networking standards. It operates over unlicensed frequencies (those which do not require a permit from the FCC or other similar regulatory agencies) and typically over short ranges (hundreds of feet).

It was originally popularized by laptops, and has made its way into smart phones, but mobile phones and mobile broadband operating over cellular networks represent a different family of technology. Other devices taking advantage of wireless include point of sale computers and cash registers, and inventory management devices such as handheld barcode scanners found in retail establishments and warehouses.

Wireless networks are generally provided by wireless access points connected to a wired network via a network cable. (The consumer-oriented wireless router also acts as a hub for a broadband Internet connection.) Mesh networking allows wireless access points to connect to each other without a network cable. Ad hoc wireless networks allow computers and other mobile devices to connect to each other without a wireless access point; these are not yet technologically mature and difficult to set up, but recent standards (from early 2010) may help address that.

Developments

The IEEE 802.11n wireless networking standard was finalized in 2009. It improves the data rates and coverage which wireless networking equipment can support.

Voice over WiFi ("VoFi"), provided by telephones using VOIP protocols, is being adopted by some companies. Some of these are simply desk phones which use a wireless connection, saving companies from having to manage physical phone lines. Others seek to provide the convenience of a cell phone, but with enterprise phone features (such as directories, conferencing, the ability to transfer calls, voicemail) under local control, and with potential cost savings. In a demonstration of wireless convergence, some VoFi phones can transition between a wireless LAN and a cellular phone link.

Affected companies

Wireless networking hardware

Cisco is the largest player in the wireless networking space by market share. Aruba Networks and Meru Networks vie for second place.

Hotspot providers

Wireless hotspot providers offer wireless networking in select locations. Independent hotspot providers have faced serious competition from mobile broadband, which has much broader coverage. Hotspots may continue to serve as a useful component of a broader telecom portfolio, but independent hotspot service is likely to remain a niche service offered in limited venues (most notably airports).

Free hotspots are also offered by various cafes or similar venues as an enticement for customers to visit. Panera is one chain offers free wireless service. In a combination of these two trends, Starbucks offers AT&T wireless in some of its stores in a partnership; Starbucks customers receive limited free service, and AT&T residential broadband customers can access unlimited service.

Pilot projects have brought hotspots to certain public transportation markets; these typically use a backhaul service such as WiMaX distributed to passengers over WiFi.

Other

The wireless networking space is also relevant to:

  • any laptop computer manufacturer
  • any smart phone manufacturer
  • any tablet computer manufacturer
  • companies producing wireless-enabled retail equipment
    • Motorola offers wireless devices such as handheld scanners for retail, but as of March 2010 was considering spinning off that division. (They also make their own access points).
  • companies producing operating systems and programming languages for embedded devices which may use wireless, including:

Losers

New wireless networking technologies may compete with Bluetooth for personal area networks and affect companies which manufacture Bluetooth equipment.

When wireless networking is deployed to replace wired networking, companies may lose out:

  • Cable-manufacturer Belden, who makes network cables, bought Trapeze Networks to guard against this possibility.
  • Cisco has a wireless networking division; however, if wireless is deployed to replace a wired network, they lose out on revenues from their wired networking division.
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