Time is money. that’s never been more true than in today’s fast-twitch e-business world. For some organizations, however, time has always been more important even than money. For the New York Presbyterian Hospital Organ Preservation Unit, which procures and preserves human organs for transplant, a few minutes can be the difference between life and death. Once removed, organs remain vital for 6 to 24 hours. To cut down on time-consuming faxes and phone calls and to speed life-saving organs to patients, the hospital unit two months ago turned to a wireless Internet connection from GoAmerica Communications Corp. of Hackensack, N.J.
Now preservationists, working at a patient’s bedside or in a moving ambulance, use laptop PCs equipped with special modem cards and antennas to post digital pictures of organs and the organ’s vital statistics on a Web site operated by the International Society for Organ Preservation, in New York. On the site’s OrganView page, doctors learn of the availability of organs instantaneously.
“Fifty percent of our work is outside in the field, in transit or in other [places such as operating rooms],” said Ben O’Mar Arrington, who heads the organ preservation unit. “We don’t know if the [remote] areas are going to be ready for [Internet access]. By being mobile, and with a system we’re sure is going to work, it’s the best way to utilize the information and send it.”
As the Internet increasingly becomes their lifeblood, more and more organizations are beginning to look to wireless technology to allow employees such as traveling business executives, salespeople and field workers to log on from anywhere at any time.
But mobility is only part of the reason wireless Internet access is beginning to take off. So-called fixed wireless technologies such as Multichannel Multipoint Distribution System are emerging as viable alternatives for connecting offices and home workers to the Web at broadband speeds. Fixed wireless technologies are particularly attractive to small and midsize businesses. That’s because such companies can use wireless technologies to get high-speed Internet access for much less than the thousands of dollars a month it would cost them to lease a T-1 line. The technologies are also valuable as a way to gain high-speed access when DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable aren’t available. Despite lingering IT concerns about wireless technologies’ security, reliability and coverage, their adoption for Internet access is accelerating.
“The Internet is driving [wireless] adoption because of mobile workers,” said Roberta Wiggins, an analyst at Boston-based consultancy The Yankee Group Inc. “Data is becoming more a part of our business lives. We use the Internet so much as a resource tool, so mobile workers in the field need the same access to information.”
Fueling wireless’s momentum, key vendors such as Microsoft Corp., Apple Computer Inc., Sprint Corp. and MCI WorldCom Inc. have begun to invest. For example, Microsoft last month acquired STNC Ltd., of the United Kingdom, a maker of wireless communications software for providing Internet access from mobile telephones. At the same time, MCI WorldCom and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures Inc., of Bellevue, Wash., are each investing $300 million into Metricom Inc., of Los Gatos, Calif., which will allow it to expand Metricom mobile wireless Ricochet service nationwide. And MCI and Sprint have recently gone on a wireless technology buying spree, acquiring broadband wireless providers.
Vendor interest in wireless Internet access technologies doesn’t stop there. Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., and Qualcomm Inc., of San Diego, last year formed a joint venture called WirelessKnowledge LLC to develop wireless access from smart phones, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and handheld devices to Microsoft Exchange features such as e-mail, calendaring and contact lists. In February, Cisco Systems Inc., of San Jose, Calif., and Motorola Inc., of Schaumburg, Ill., formed an alliance to develop Internet-based wireless networks. 3Com Corp., of Santa Clara, Calif., and Aether Technologies International LLC, of Owings Mills, Md., announced in June a joint venture to create a wireless data service provider called Open Sky to bring Web, e-mail and corporate intranets to cell phones, pagers and handhelds.
3Com’s Palm VII, which incorporates wireless Internet access, has motivated e-businesses to begin developing content and services for mobile users. For example, Online securities brokers Charles Schwab & Co. Inc., of San Francisco, and Fidelity Investments, of Boston, have announced plans to roll out Web-based trading sites for PDA-equipped mobile investors.
For IT managers interested in adopting wireless data technologies, the arrival of more players and more robust services cannot come soon enough. For many mobile wireless Internet users, transmission speeds remain relatively slow. New York Presbyterian users, for example, typically connect at about 19K bps. And, today, the wireless connection to the Web is not always reliable.
But the benefits of being mobile and no longer having to worry about finding a landline to plug into outweigh the slower speeds and occasional interruptions, he said. The cost also fits Arrington’s budget. The GoAmerica service costs $59 a month, and the modem cards cost $400 each. New York Presbyterian currently has four wireless laptops.
Connection speeds for mobile Internet service are poised to increase in the next few months and years. Cellular and personal communications services carriers such as AT&T Wireless Services Inc., Bell Atlantic Mobile and GTE Corp.’s GTE Wireless subsidiary are moving to increase wireless network data speeds from today’s typical 14.4K bps and lower to 384K bps over the next three to five years. Speeds could reach 64K bps in the next year, said Yankee’s Wiggins.
Meanwhile, Metricom is revamping its proprietary network that runs its Ricochet service. Now available at 28.8K bps in the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle and Washington, Ricochet is scheduled to reach 128K-bps service by the middle of next year in 12 markets.
Even with a 28.8K-bps connection, Harold Mann is discovering a new level of personal freedom in using the Ricochet service. Mann is one of three wireless Internet users at Mann Consulting, a multimedia company in San Francisco.
“At first I was not convinced why I needed to have [wireless Internet access],” Mann said. “[But] it’s the self-reliance; not having to depend on anyone else for a Net connection.”
Despite his initial skepticism, Mann now views the wireless connection on his Apple Macintosh PowerBook G3 as a crucial productivity tool. Mann recalled a situation when he was at a remote California site for the filming of the movie “Deep Impact.” The producers were missing an important graphic, but no one had access to a phone line. Mann clamped on his Ricochet modem, the antenna protruding atop his laptop, and downloaded the image.
Ricochet’s biggest limitation, other than its speed, is its coverage, Mann said. But Metricom is planning to expand service from three to 46 metropolitan markets by mid-2001.
And while providers of mobile wireless Internet access push for higher speeds, fixed services are already connecting users at speeds rivaling T-1 lines, DSL and cable, often for a lot less money. Fixed wireless services are often termed “DSL in the sky” or “wireless cable.” Deployments so far, however, have been mostly only regional.
Where fixed wireless Internet access is available, some IT managers have turned to it as an alternative to the high cost of a T-1 line or in lieu of DSL or cable, which often are not available in their locations. Take Yack Inc., of Emeryville, Calif. When the Web guide to Internet events and chats moved to its new office six months ago, chief technology officer Jasbir Singh needed a way to provide the then six employees with high-speed Internet access, but he couldn’t afford $2,000 to $3,500 for a T-1 connection. Singh tried to get DSL, but both the local phone company, Pacific Bell, and competitor Concentric Network Corp., of San Jose, Calif., told him that Yack was located too far from a central office to use the distance-sensitive service. But Concentric offered a solution: a wireless service it provides through ISP Wavepath, of Mountain View, Calif.,that uses a small dish placed on top of the user’s building to provide downstream service at T-1 speeds (1.54M bps) and upstream at 512K bps, Singh said. The cost: not thousands of dollars, but $499 a month. Singh was sold.
Today, the wireless connection continues to be part of Yack’s Internet-connection strategy. But the company two months ago also installed a dedicated T-1 line connecting it to one of its Web-site hosts. As Yack has grown–it now has about 30 employees–it has become able to afford the T-1 connection that Singh sees as more reliable. The wireless connection has evolved into a redundant, high-speed backup rather than the primary Internet connection, Singh said.
Reinforcing the role of fixed wireless as supplemental to T-1 are some lingering limitations in the technology.
But for Scripps Howard Broadcasting’s WXYZ-TV, of Southfield, Mich., a combination of Internet connections–including fixed wireless–provided the best way to stream live news broadcasts over the Web. When station officials began researching options for the project about a year ago, they realized they needed high-capacity bandwidth. A T-1 line seemed like the obvious solution, but Christa Reckhorn, the ABC Inc. affiliate’s director of new media, was concerned about spiking demand.
That’s where SpeedChoice fits in. The wireless Internet service from People’s Choice TV Corp., of Shelton, Conn., provides the station with a 10M-bps downstream connection, more than enough to keep reporters and assignment editors hooked into the Internet to find last-minute news sources. That keeps most of the T-1 connection’s bandwidth free to send a smooth stream of video during four daily newscasts to a hosted server in Seattle, Reckhorn said.
“There’s really no other way we could have done it,” she said. “You’re limited to the speed of a T-1, and we couldn’t afford higher bandwidth. [But] wireless allows you to add bandwidth at the same cost.”