26 May Future of cable, wireless shown off at ITEC Milwaukee
MILWAUKEE – Despite the encroachment of wireless technology, broadband Internet access over cable lines will only become more popular with business and home users, according to Dan Conrad, vice president of commercial services for Time Warner Cable.
In his keynote address Wednesday at the ITEC conference in Milwaukee, he laid out what he sees as the future of broadband, mentioning uses such as interactive television and allowing telecommuting employees, or “teleworkers,” to do more work at home.
Conrad said broadband is increasing in reliability and quality of service to the point where voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, is a practical way to extend corporate phone services to employees’ homes. He said a hybrid system of traditional phones and VoIP could allow home users to take advantage of most or all of a company’s advanced PBX phone features, such as abbreviated dialing and transferring calls.
None of this would be possible using slower dialup connections, meaning that the successful expansion of broadband is tied to being able to use these sorts of features. Conrad predicted the estimated 25 million users of broadband in 2004 would expand to 35 million by 2006.
“Once you go to broadband, it’s very hard to go back,” he said.
Cable’s advantage over other broadband services, such as digital subscriber lines, is that many people are familiar with the cable hookups they use for their televisions. And if they use the same connection, television and computers do not have to remain separate. Conrad predicted that video on demand would combine with interactive Internet advertising, enabling viewers to pause a program while following a hyperlink in a television ad to a Web site, where they could make an immediate purchase.
The challenge will be getting television viewers, who have moved recently toward devices such as the TiVo that allow them to avoid advertising altogether, to tolerate and even interact with ads instead of continuing to watch their program. If broadcasting companies can achieve that, Conrad said, the system could lead to impulse buys while giving consumers more information on their purchases.
Just as cable has edged out dialup connections, however, for many technology users and especially early adopters wireless Internet access is increasingly attractive. Cable providers hope to roll with that change and provide hybrid services that could possibly use cable for big-pipe connections and wireless for mobile access.
“I believe cable is evolving beyond just being a land-line service as wireless services become more reliable,” he said.
Making Wireless Work
Speaking of wireless, two wireless experts gave an audience at the conference tips and ideas for creating their own wireless networks.
Ted Tang, a senior network analyst with Modine Manufacturing Co., said a driving factor in the popularity of wireless is its convenience. Wireless hotspots can be installed where running cables to every computer would be expensive or awkward. But privacy and security are problems that need special attention, as wireless is a new technology and encryption is not always built in. Interference with the signal can also degrade the quality of a wireless connection.
Wireless Internet is essentially radio, which can operate on various frequencies. The 2.4 gigahertz band is used by cordless phones and Bluetooth devices as well as microwave ovens, and Tang said it will become crowded. At 5 gigahertz, the Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure band allows for more devices.
“If you have 2.4-gigahertz cordless phones, they will interfere with your wireless network,” said Warren Lecus, a senior engineer with Digicorp.
A disadvantage of wireless connections compared to standard Ethernet is that a wireless interface cannot send and receive data at the same time. The signal would be drowned out. That means wireless network protocols need to request to send information and be cleared by the access point or other computer. In addition, each packet of data must be acknowledged so the sender knows it was received.
Tang surveyed the history of 802.11, a series of lettered wireless standards now running “a” through “j.” 802.11a operated in the unlicensed band above 5 gigahertz and had the potential for 199 simultaneous channels, of which 12 were used in the United States: four indoor, four outdoor, and four that crossed over.
802.11b and 802.11g use the 2.4-gigahertz band and can support one to 11 channels, but only three non-overlapping channels. Each channel has 22 megahertz of bandwidth, Tang said. In large-area installations, this restriction often leads to an overlapping “honeycomb” layout, in which multiple access points are arranged so that no more than three overlap at any point and a wireless user can move around in the area without losing the connection.
Troubleshooting for wireless connections is not like regular network troubleshooting, Tang said. Problems can come from the radio coverage itself, which, being invisible, may not be as easy to diagnose as unplugged cables. To diagnose packet problems, analyzers such as Airmagnet and Airsnort are available specifically for wireless connections, in addition to the tools used for regular Ethernet.
For audits, Tang also recommended using some of the tools that “wardrivers,” people who drive around looking for unsecure wireless access points, use, such as Network Stumbler.
Lecus laid out a ten-step approach to wireless implementation that is secure and reliable. He emphasized planning based on the environment and the needs of the company.
“Wireless signals travel through floors and ceilings,” he said, pointing out that companies on neighboring floors of the same building could experience interference if they do not pay attention to each other’s wireless setup. On the other hand, thick concrete walls could block signals even within a small space.
He also recommended a small test configuration before moving to a full-scale wireless setup. Some applications, especially those that need to transfer large amounts of data constantly, may not work over wireless connections.
And that is the rub when switching to wireless connections. While many find the convenience of not having to run cables attractive, interference and layout problems may lead to poor quality of service. Nevertheless, Tang and Lecus presented ways that companies can reduce their problems with wireless connections, and its adoption seems to be continuing.
Jason Stitt is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.