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Wireless debates swirl through the Vortex

Wireless debates swirl through the Vortex

Vendors might be furiously trying to exploit Wi-Fi wireless LAN technology, but the consensus at last week’s Vortex 2003 conference was that few have figured out how to make a real business of it.

Intel CEO, Craig Barrett, Verizon President, Larry Babbio jnr, and General Motors Chief Technology Officer, Tony Scott, were among those pressed for their thoughts on Wi-Fi (also known as 802.11).

Vortex, in its sixth year, is a gathering of high-level network industry executives, investors and entrepreneurs that is run by the IDG Executive Forums division.

Several speakers cited Intel’s strong backing of Wi-Fi — including heavy marketing behind its Centrino wireless processors and a $US150 million wireless investment fund — as a boon for the fast-spreading technology. And Barrett did nothing at the show to temper Intel’s support.

“When people say [Wi-Fi is] hype, I get a little riled,” he said, noting that the technology has paid its dues in the grass-roots community and is no overnight sensation. “Hell, Wi-Fi is the only exciting thing in the whole industry.”

Intel plans to get more devices in the market that run Centrino, with that wireless access boosting demand for broadband services and generating sales for more powerful computers and devices containing Intel technology.

Barrett said there are many opportunities in Wi-Fi especially for companies that put new wireless data infrastructures in place and figure out technical challenges such as roaming. These companies don’t need to gouge customers, such as those vendors charging $US10 for Net access at airports, to make money, he said.

Wi-Fi could even stimulate demand for lagging 3G services, Barrett claimed.

The intersection of Wi-Fi and cellular was key for supporting voice and data needs, he said.

“After 25 years of talking about convergence, this is the first time we’ve seen real evidence of convergence between the computing and communications worlds,” Barrett said.

Cisco, too, is betting big on Wi-Fi and might have carved out a leadership position in what Infonetics Research estimates will be a $US2 billion WLAN hardware market this year.

“We’re investing not just in the enterprise space but in the consumer space” with the recent Linksys acquisition, said Charlie Giancarlo, Cisco’s senior vice-president and general manager of product development.

Giancarlo dismissed the efforts by a group of wireless switch start-ups, which he said were failing to focus on what customers wanted.

He said customers wanted to greatly simplify wireless in enterprise networks; they wanted to “put one box in the wiring closet and have an entire floor covered.”

Cisco plans to elaborate on its WLAN strategy this month.

Babbio said his company’s enthusiasm for Wi-Fi was more muted, although he mentioned recently announced plans to convert old pay phones for use as Wi-Fi hot spots and that Verizon Wireless also has Wi-Fi designs.

He said the payphone-to-Wi-Fi service would be an add-on for DSL customers, not for the general public.

“I’m not sure what the business model is” for public Wi-Fi, he said. “But it’s so early. We could be having a totally different conversation next year.”

President of Qualcomm’s Wireless and Internet Group, Paul Jacobs, wasn’t so sure wireless carriers had big plans for Wi-Fi other than as a fill-in technology.

“I sort of feel trapped back in the Internet bubble days,” he said, referring to the buzz surrounding Wi-Fi.

When asked if carriers had requested Qualcomm to include Wi-Fi support in the chips it builds for mobile devices, he replied: “They have not asked us to do that.”

But Jacobs said Wi-Fi could be good for cellular carriers because they were now charging a flat rate to users, and if they could get those paying customers off their cellular networks and onto Wi-Fi networks it could keep their cellular systems from getting overburdened.

More persuasive was GM’s Scott, who said the car manufacturer spent $US3 billion a year on IT. Recent projects included replacing almost all proprietary spread spectrum wireless networks with 802.11.

One thing Scott liked about Wi-Fi was that it’s a standard, something GM tried to stick to in buying technologies in order to help simplify support and interoperability across its many locations.

GM was also looking at voiceover Wi-Fi in some areas.

Although GM hasn’t experienced huge surprises with Wi-Fi, Scott said the company had used the technology in more places, such as quality control, than originally intended. However, GM didn’t quite trust the technology enough to support applications in the manufacturing process that involved human safety, he said.

Scott said 3G wireless was the most over-hyped technology.

“That’s something we’re not worrying about,” he said.

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