Wireless at the Coalface: Part 1

Rather than a critique of individual products and suppliers, we wanted some feedback on what wireless connectivity in general is delivering for the business, how it fits alongside wired infrastructure, where it falls short of what IT professionals need and where it delivers the goods - in all a practical assessment of what enterprises are currently getting and what they expect down the line.

This month we look at two examples from the private sector, next month we turn to the public sector.

Aaron Bazler, network and infrastructure manager at Manchester Airport

Manchester is the UK's third largest airport, handling 20 million passengers a year travelling to more than 180 destinations worldwide.

The airport has implemented a campus-wide wireless network to allow secure high-speed internet access for both staff and travellers.

The Manchester deployment consists of 90 Trapeze Mobility Point access points covering the three terminals. Having started out with 28 access points as a pilot to cover the airport's executive lounges and food courts, the system has since been expanded to provide wireless coverage to almost every indoor part of the enterprise.

The network supports three wireless standards: 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. Manchester's T-Mobile-based service keeps public and staff traffic separate with centralised policies for network access and mobility services.

"Our customers are the travellers that use the airport, logging on between getting past security and boarding their plane," says Bazler. "Along with using the toilet and having a coffee it's something people simply expect at airports these days."

As well as serving passengers, the wireless network is also at the disposal of airport staff, he says, who were previously restricted to a wired terminal for accessing information for customers. "Now they can interact with customers wherever they are without having to stand there and wait for them."

The system in use today was specified back in 2003, says Basler: "It was an easy choice back then as there weren't too many options to choose from. We're using pretty much the same hardware as then, but a lot more of it, and we've upgraded the software."

Basler's future plans include extending the wireless network outside the terminal buildings to bring mobile data to the apron and airfield.

"I'm looking forward to performance above the 54Mb we're now getting from our 802.11g network when that becomes available," he says. "I'm keen to see what will be possible with 802.11n in terms of high speeds. I know a lot of organisations are adopting 802.11n now rather than wait for ratification, but as an international airport I feel we have a certain amount of responsibility to wait until fully endorsed 802.11n products come along."

Looking forward, Basler feels that Manchester's wireless network will always be complementary to its fixed network, not an eventual replacement. "I anticipate that there will always be a performance differential between the two which means the wired infrastructure will remain the main network," he says. "But I think they can coexist quite happily."

The current network works without interfering with other airport communications systems as it's on a different frequency to the police radio, the operational staff's trunk radio and the mobile phone networks, he explains: "Effort is needed to make sure they all work in harmony."

Basler would like a future where he can run voice over the wireless network, using 'a cheap and reliable device'.

"Having terminal staff use mobile phones is a waste of time and money," he believes. "The next step is a wireless voice system that lets us broadcast to particular people."

David Johnson, IT manager with third party maintenance company Selection Services

Selection Services provides computer maintenance, enterprise systems management and other professional IT services. Its 120-strong team of field service engineers make more than 200 customer site visits daily.

The company uses a mobility application supplied by Dexterra, which provides the field engineers with detailed information about upcoming jobs and takes them step-by-step through each job.

Selection Services says it has made annual savings of approximately 25,000 as it now needs fewer licences of Remedy now that engineers can log on and off with their PDAs. Mobile call charges have come down by 80 per cent, it says, as engineers spend less time calling the helpdesk.

"We replicate for our clients the experience they would get from an IT helpdesk, with the work carried out by our field engineers," says Johnson.

Although engineers are equipped with both Wi-Fi and GSM-based data networking technologies, the geographically distributed nature of their work means that at present it's the mobile phone technology that takes the load.

"Our communications are currently based on Orange GPRS, but we're soon switching to 3G, which I'm expecting will be a hell of a lot faster," says Johnson.

At present, he says, it takes the field engineers a couple of minutes to synchronise each job using their PDA when they get to the client site. "I estimate we'll halve that with 3G," he says. "A significant performance advantage is expected. 3G is also a more stable technology than GPRS, as operators shift bandwidth over to 3G. They won't tell you they're doing this, but I know they are."

The new solution will have online and offline uses, he says. If an engineer is in a basement away from a 3G signal, they can input all the information into the PDA, and as soon as it is back in range he clicks 'synchronise' and up it all goes. "Training will be minimal, which is another important way of saving money," he says.

"I'm a gadget freak by nature, and always have been," confesses Johnson. "Others say I'm a nerd, but I don't see it that way."

He says his personal and professional interest in technology means that he is always on the lookout for new possibilities, one of which is making more use of wireless networks going forward.

"I'd definitely be interested in dual mode devices in the future, combining 3G and some sort of broadband wireless perhaps," he says. Wi-Fi as it stands, he says, is not much use on its own because of the wide areas that engineers roam across.

"I can see that Wi-Fi might end up as not just hotspots, but something more pervasive," he anticipates. "I can see one of the mobile operators snapping it all up and joining it together. I've read about WiMax, and that's something I'll be looking into, but I think it's only available now in a few rural areas."

He says he would like a future where there is true seamless connectivity between wireless and 3G in one device so the user doesn't need to even be aware of the difference. "If that becomes available then I'll try it out first before demoing it to the chief executive," he says. "I don't want to make a fool of myself. It needs to be sold to me first."

Security is not really much of an issue now, he says: "All PDA users have their own password, and no engineer can use another's device without it. I suppose some hacker will find their way in one day, as nothing's fool proof."

Click here to read part two of this feature.