It's not your father's wireless anymore

Four major challenges for IT executives to prepare for the coming wireless changes

Back in the day, wireless data was a neatly self-contained niche technology used by folks such as field force workers and logistics companies, but virtually ignored by everyone else.

In case it isn't obvious, those days are long gone. Alcatel Lucent says that 58 per cent of mobile-equipped enterprise employees are using smartphones. Outside the workforce, the trend is even more noteworthy --74 per cent of teenagers use their phones for more than voice.

Meanwhile, vendors and carriers are pushing ever-broader bandwidths, and working hard to integrate wireless and wireline infrastructures (more on that in a minute). So where's wireless headed? And how should enterprise IT executives prepare for the coming changes?

There are four major challenges. First lies in seizing control of wireless initiatives -- all of them. Most IT folks are aware of (and manage) wireless LANs, but mobile devices are generally in someone else's budget (66 per cent of enterprises say that mobile device budgets are handled outside of IT). Big mistake! To plan an effective wireless roadmap, IT needs to be in charge of mobile procurement and planning. Take charge here -- get all of mobility into the IT budget.

Next, you need to sort through the explosion of wireless technologies and specs so you can place the right bets for your wireless road map. Here's a fast primer. There are two basic classes of wireless specs: those developed initially as LAN technologies, and those devised by carriers. LAN specs include the Wi-Fi suite of (802.11a,b,g, and n), and 802.16 and WiMAX. Telemetry (measuring and recording data wirelessly) is based on the 802.15 spec, an offshoot of the LAN technologies. Carrier specs encompass two main technologies, the GSM and CDMA families. GSM comprises GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSPA and LTE; CDMA includes EV-DO and UMB.

In general, GSM dominates in Europe and is slowly gaining traction in the United States; LAN technologies (especially WiMAX) are stronger in the United States, where they're supported by some carriers (as of this writing Sprint and ClearWire remain committed to WiMAX).

More interestingly, we're seeing a major battle shaping up between the LAN and carrier specs for campus networking, which brings us to the third challenge facing IT execs: Selecting the right approach to fixed/mobile convergence. (FMC is the catchall term referring to the ability to merge landline telephony with cellular services, so calls can be seamlessly routed over the lowest-cost, highest-performing network, and users have a single voice mail repository). Some vendors (such as DiVitas and Agito) are promoting Wi-Fi-based schemes for FMC; carriers and "pseudo-carriers" such as Strata8 are promoting carrier-based offerings relying on IMS. Watch this space closely -- things will get more exciting before long.

Finally, IT needs to think about how wireless affects every enterprise initiative. Rolling out a new application? As the team it will be accessed, managed and secured from mobile devices. Launching a new security framework? Make sure it covers wireless. And so on.

Bottom line: The wireless world's more dynamic than it's ever been, and smart techies will keep an eye on how it evolves.

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Johna Till Johnson

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