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January 4, 2004

Mixed year for 3G, wireless broadband ignites interest

The year in wireless? Where to begin?3G networks based on the WCDMA standard finally hit the airwaves in Europe courtesy of Hutchison 3G's "3" service. But poor handsets, high costs and indifference to novelties such as English Premiership football clips and video messaging on a mobile phone backed Hutchison into a corner, forcing it to compete with non-3G network operators for voice traffic.

By CBR Staff Writer

While this is tantamount to dodging the point of 3G networks in the first place, 3’s decision to accept short-term pain for long-term gain appears to be paying at least some dividend, with subscriber numbers on the up, albeit still far off the company’s original expectations.

While Europe may not be quite ready for 3G, the Far East, with the J-Phone and Vodafone’s WCDMA network in Japan and SK Telecom in South Korea, in particular, demonstrating the technology’s potential.

Certainly, the concept of broadband wireless network access, in the form of wireless LAN (WLAN), has started to catch on in 2003. Estimates as to the number of public WLAN hotspots worldwide vary – the JIWire website lists around 23,000 while WiFinder records only around 11,600 live hotspots as of December 2003 – but it is the availability of cheap home WLAN equipment that is truly driving acceptance of the technology and will boost its use inside and outside the office.

Add in future technologies such as WiMax, ultra wideband (UWB) and orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) and the ability to bridge multiple wireless networks is also becoming crucial if the holy grail of pervasive wireless broadband access is to become a reality.

2003 has seen many efforts to break down barriers between wide area and local area wireless networks – and in many cases fixed-line broadband access – by service providers across the globe offering simple roaming and billing for data customers, a trend that will gather pace in 2004.

The technical challenges of achieving seamless handoff between different radio standards remain, however, with proprietary mechanisms currently dominating, where they are employed at all. However, the gradual shift to IPv6 and adoption of Mobile IP will greatly aid this cause.

But wireless connectivity is one thing and wireless security, especially in an enterprise context, is quite another. Fears of wireless insecurities related to the cracking of WLAN’s built-in security are now being addressed by a specialized group of vendors offering WLAN security appliances and, in their most recent incarnation, WLAN switches. Bluesocket, Airespace, ReefEdge and Aruba Wireless.

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The trend towards secure sockets layer (SSL) virtual private networks (VPNs) – from a multitude of vendors – is also going a long way to help the security of remote intranet connectivity.

The mobile device market has also come a long way in 2003, with Symbian devices such as Sony Ericsson’s P800 now starting to outsell traditional PDAs. Microsoft Corp has also made strides to boost its smart phone credentials, notably through a tie-up with number two handset vendor Motorola Inc, which itself ducked out of its Symbian shareholding in order to keep its device options open.

Meanwhile, Palm – the underdog in the opinion of many observers – has played to its strengths by releasing its operating systems division, PalmSource, to proffer its market-leading software to new licensees, while the hardware business, now known as PalmOne, absorbed its wayward child Handspring to help chase the smart phone market.

With the investment and IPO markets now also opening up to wireless and mobile companies, 2004 promises to be the year that the sector finally fulfils its long-held promise.

This article is based on material originally produced by ComputerWire.

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