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The bits at the end of the Rainbow


By Scott Bradner


The New York Times reported in mid July that some of the big guys are now thinking seriously about hot spotting the wireless landscape. If their plans come to fruition we could be well along to the future I wrote about last year ("Will the wrong wireless succeed?" nw 10/15/01)


It's hard to imagine a much higher-powered group of companies than the one the Times reported as having been involved in "Project Rainbow" over the past eight months. Intel, I.B.M., AT&T Wireless, Verizon Communications, and Cingular Communications, along with other companies not named, have been working in secret to put together a plan to provide 802.11-based wireless service "hot spot" service in public spaces such as airports. Users would be able to use both these 802.11 sites and low-speed cellular for Internet access under a unified billing plan.


The effort is apparently urged on by Intel as part of its plan to push 802.11 quite aggressively -- they said a while ago that their plan is to have 20 million portable computers 802.11 enabled in 2003, expanding to a total of 60 million portable and desktop computers by the end of 2004. Things are rosy in the 802.11 world, the Times reports that 7 million 802.11 cards were sold last year alone. Even without the help of Project Rainbow, 802.11 is popping up all over the place. I'm writing this column sitting in a hotel room on an island at the southern tip of Korea, with free in-room Ethernet-based Internet connections, exchanging email with a colleague sitting a few hundred miles north in Seoul in a bar with free 802.11-based Internet service. We both just finished a week of intense activity at the IETF meeting in Yokohama where there were over 1400 people using the 802.11 network and were there was experimental 802.11-based Internet service in the first class car of the train running from the Tokyo airport to Yokohama. One of the more interesting parts of this story is the involvement of three large cellular telephone companies. It was not too long ago that some of these same companies were getting ready to spend billions of dollars to acquire licenses for radio spectrum to support the rollout of 2.5 and 3 G cellular technology to provide high-speed data services to cell phones. It may be that these wireless companies think they can have their cake and eat it too by supporting both cellular and 802.11 technologies but I suspect that the result will come down mostly in favor of 802.11.


It may be the case that 802.11 is not the "best" way to provide wireless Internet service, 3rd generation cellular may give better coverage and better control of quality of service but, as Bob Braden, a long-term Internet geek, said ?~@~\the lesson of the Internet is that efficiency is not the primary consideration. Ability to grow and adapt to changing requirements is the primary consideration." 802.11 has shown itself ready to do this.


disclaimer: Harvard knows how to grow, and occasionally adapt, but has expressed no opinion on this topic.