New developments in wireless technologies promise to increase the speed and range of wireless networks even further, bringing the benefits of wireless computing to an ever-greater number of people–and expanding the power of these networks to accommodate video and other bandwidth-intensive applications.

Many cities and towns already have, or are working to create, large outdoor wireless networks that are available to the public, and these efforts should be aided by new long-range wireless technologies that some experts believe could explode onto the scene later this year. As the buzz from the floor of the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas proved earlier this month, new developments in short-range wireless technologies also have IT experts excited.

“Wireless connectivity in schools is as basic a need today as was ‘hard-wired’ connectivity five years ago,” says Bob Moore, executive director of information technology services for the Blue Valley Union School District 229 in Kansas. “It gives flexibility to students and staff that would not be possible otherwise.”

With a number of so-called “4G,” or fourth-generation, wireless technologies starting to make their way onto the market, here’s a closer look at the emerging trends that will shape how schools connect their students and their schools to digital media.

Short-range wireless

Bluetooth–used in everything from cell phones to video games–is the current king of personal-area wireless technology, but “ultra wideband” (UWB) could eventually take over. “It’s already been out there for awhile,” says Gartner Distinguished Analyst Ken Dulaney. “But now, chips are getting produced, and it’s getting a lot cheaper to make.”

UWB is known for being able to transmit signals wirelessly at a much higher rate than Bluetooth–between 40 and 60 megabits of data per second, and eventually up to 1 gigabit per second, compared with Bluetooth’s 2 to 3 Mbps.

UWB transmits ultra low-power radio signals with very short electrical pulses across all frequencies at once. Because it spans the entire frequency spectrum, it can be used effectively even indoors and underground, regardless of obstructions.

A number of products using UWB technology were introduced at the 2007 CES earlier this month (see related story), and many experts believe UWB soon could become the technology of choice for transmitting data from cameras, televisions, printers, and other peripherals. But a significant shortcoming is that UWB is limited to a distance of about 30 feet, the same as Class 2 Bluetooth radios. (Class 1 Bluetooth devices have a range of up to 300 feet.) This could prevent UWB from becoming the do-all data transmitter for media streaming that it is designed to be.

Next-generation Wi-Fi

Over the past half-decade, Wi-Fi (802.11) has become the standard bearer for wireless connectivity, exploding from a primarily home- or office-based technology to one that is installed in parks, libraries, coffee shops, arenas, and–most importantly–schools.

The next big development in the Wi-Fi cycle is 802.11n. In the past few years, versions have progressed from 802.11b, to 802.11a, to the current default version, 802.11g. But certain limitations have spurred wireless providers to seek a new and improved version of Wi-Fi; one that, when finally approved, promises to supply users with much faster speeds and longer ranges.

802.11n has been in development since 2004. Since then, the need for a wireless standard to provide blazing-fast speeds has increased greatly. With new developments in video streaming technology, the availability of low-cost video-editing tools, and the emergence of sites such as YouTube, a growing number of schools and other consumers are embracing internet video. Current 802.11g transmission speeds support streaming video, but not to an extent that would encourage teachers to use video streaming every day. 802.11n has the capability to provide users with speeds of more than 300 Mbps in theory–though these speeds have yet to be reached in everyday usage.

In the current generation of wireless solutions, especially 802.11g, loss of signal strength or transmission speed is a problem, depending on where you are in relation to an access point. Often, a computer closer to an access point, but in a different room, will experience a weaker signal strength than a machine in the same room but farther away. This is because the signal has to bounce off of walls to get from point A to point B. Each bounce takes away energy from the signal. Naturally, the more walls the signal has to bounce off of, the lower the energy will be once it finally reaches its target.

This problem has been solved with 802.11n. By taking advantage of MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) technology, the routers and adaptors will not lose any signal strength or energy when receiving or transmitting. This is done by having multiple antennae in both the router and adaptor. Each antenna transmits and receives multiple independent signals. When traveling from one point to another, each signal will still lose energy–but once they reach their target, all signals are combined into one much stronger signal.

This development means you need fewer routers in your school to provide as much, or more, range and speed. Also, with 802.11n’s increased speed, a larger number of students and teachers can access the internet at relatively fast speeds.

Another new advantage of 802.11n is its ability to optimize the user’s experience in terms of speed or range. According to Gartner’s Dulaney, manufacturers will be able to insert variables in their products that allow for user customization. Users then will be able to choose what they want to emphasize: Do they want to be able to use their router for faster transmission speeds, or a greater range of signal? It’s all up to them.

Much like the previous versions of 802.11, “n” is backwards compatible with a, b, and g. This is part of the reason for a holdup in approval, says Tom Chomicz, a network security engineer with CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G). “When a new product comes out, backwards compatibility is huge so that it doesn’t require a full upgrade. [Manufacturers] are working to make sure that the new chipsets will play nice and work in existing wireless environments,” Chomicz explains. By incorporating backwards compatibility, users will be able to upgrade their equipment in stages, while still being able to use their existing Wi-Fi gear.

What’s unclear is how long it will take for schools and other consumers to upgrade to 802.11n, once it is officially released. “I think it’s going to be quite awhile,” says Chomicz. “Wireless has just become hot in schools in the last 18 months or so. I do three or four [projects] a week of implementing a first-generation wireless [deployment] for schools. They’re not going to want to upgrade to a new version only a year after they’ve first installed one. I’d imagine it would take three years before you see a lot of people upgrading.”

A big hurdle for 802.11n is the fact that it hasn’t even been approved as a standard yet. 802.11g still remains the fastest and farthest-reaching of the approved standards. Opinions vary about the timeline for a possible approval of the draft “n” standard. For the standard to become final, it must be approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. Chomicz says the latest timeline has approval set for around April 2008. This could very well change, however, considering final approval has been pushed back repeatedly. It is expected that a second draft version will be approved sometime early this year.

The lack of a final approved standard hasn’t stopped many vendors from producing what they call 802.11n “draft” products. Leading wireless manufactures such as Linksys (a division of Cisco Systems), Netgear, D-Link, Belkin, Buffalo, and even Apple Inc. have all released access points and adaptors that are only labeled as being compliant with the IEEE 802.11n draft version 1.0.

This has lead to a disagreement over how much the specifications will change once the standard is finally approved. Some argue the differences will be so slight that nothing but a small firmware update will be needed to make these draft-version products compliant with the final version of the standard. Others, however, say these prematurely released products are designed simply to generate revenue for companies that have been waiting since 2004 to see a new version of Wi-Fi issued.

“We’ve been telling our customers, ‘Do not buy draft n,'” says Dulaney. “They’ll only be disappointed. Wait until [IEEE] provides certification.”

Dulaney added that manufacturers have made no guarantees to refund any money to those who purchase draft “n” products if the standard changes so much that an entirely new access point or adaptor is needed–thus leaving customers with what essentially is a much more expensive 802.11g product.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit group consisting of many of the companies producing wireless products, has decided to begin certifying member companies’ access points and adaptors as 802.11n compliant beginning in March. This could provide assurance to those who are wary of investing in “n” products before the standard is officially approved. In the end, though, the choice is up to consumers: Do they take the risk and invest in “n” products now, or hold off until the standard has finally been approved?

Long-range wireless

2007 is poised to be a breakout year for another wireless standard, one that has been hyped as the solution to outdoor wireless networking for years–replacing the current configurations of 802.11g routers being placed around a campus, or mesh-network radios being placed on top of street lamps. That solution is known as 802.16, or WiMAX.

WiMAX networks are intended to be deployed like cell-phone networks are–by mounting the radio units on top of large vertical towers. By having the radios pointed in three different directions, WiMAX is able to gain 360-degree coverage for miles.

With WiMAX having been touted as the “next big thing” in wireless technology for so long, it was only natural that someone would develop huge plans for implementing it at some point. That development came last August, when Sprint Nextelannounced a broad and bold initiative to create a nationwide WiMAX network.

In partnership with the main backers of WiMAX (Intel Corp., Motorola Inc., Samsung, LG, and Nokia), Sprint intends to create the first broadly available version of 4G wireless technology. The goal is to have mobile WiMAX deployed across the largest 85 markets nationwide by 2008, says Jim Parker, senior manager of wireless terminals for Samsung Telecommunications America.

One of the problems many people have with WiMAX is that it’s been discussed for so long without any real results. “WiMAX is a hype technology,” says Dulaney. “It’s in very few places. We should sit back and wait on that. There are plenty of other technologies that will be available today, and that includes wired technology.”

But that might change very soon. At the 2007 CES in Las Vegas, Sprint announced that by the end of the year Chicago and Washington, D.C., will be the first cities to have mobile WiMAX service available throughout their respective areas. In fact, Sprint announced plans for a larger rollout reaching at least 100 million people by the end of 2008.

Although Wi-Fi and WiMAX are different wireless standards, the two are able to co-exist and also work together to broadcast wireless signals. In an experiment to demonstrate the range of WiMAX, Intel brought state and major school district officials to the top of a mountain in Montana in June 2005. There, they were able to access the internet through tablet PCs by retrieving a line-of-site signal from WiMAX antennas on top of dormitory buildings at the University of Montana, 10 miles away, and converting the signal from 802.16 to 802.11.

With results like that, it’s not difficult to imagine the possibilities of a WiMAX network for schools. All that is needed would be a WiMAX radio tower and an antenna outside of each school to convert the signal to an 802.11 transmission for use inside the building.

One of the main goals of the technology’s backers is for WiMAX to be as prevalent as Wi-Fi. You might remember five or six years ago, when wireless internet access was available only with a PC-MCIA card. Today, almost every laptop manufactured contains internal Wi-Fi capability. With its push to make WiMAX a widely used form of wireless connectivity, Intel aims to have its WiMAX Connection 2250 radio chip installed in most laptops of the future.

Point-to-point wireless

For many school districts that want to have an integrated, closed, and secure wireless network connecting their schools, a point-to-point (PTP) wireless solution is fast becoming the solution of choice. For many of these districts, a T-1 line is not feasible, and fiber optics are too expensive. A wireless network is both an affordable and a relatively fast option, they say.

Motorola, one of the leading providers of PTP networking, recently completed installation of a PTP wireless network for the Aurora Public School District in Colorado. There, the schools were relying on expensive T-1 lines, and district officials wanted to replace these lines with a wireless network to connect the schools. But line-of-site issues came up. With traditional Wi-Fi, a non-direct line of site poses problems with range and speed. Motorola’s PTP network, however–which uses MIMO technology to send and receive radio signals–provides the schools with almost no loss in range or speed.

PTP almost can be described as a closed-network version of WiMAX, offering schools a safe and secure, closed-network frequency that is able to travel very long distances. PTP wireless is becoming more and more prevalent, owing largely to its more robust security, says Phil Bolt, general manager of Motorola’s Point-to-Point Wireless Solutions Group.

Future trends

You can expect a multitude of wireless technologies to be available and built into laptops and other digital devices for the next 15 to 20 years, says Paul Butcher, WiMAX marketing manager for Intel. The general consensus is that WiMAX, with its longer range and slower speeds, will not replace Wi-Fi as the wireless solution of choice for indoor use.

“Wi-Fi and WiMAX will co-exist and remain on the laptop for many years,” Butcher says. “Users of laptops will be connecting to wireless broadband signals depending on the best connections. It could be outside on WiMAX, or inside on Wi-Fi.”

Many experts also believe this new fourth generation of wireless technologies is one that will be around for quite some time. “It costs so much money for these companies to invest in new technologies that there just can’t be brand-new technologies coming out all the time,” says Gartner’s Dulaney. And if the recent CES is an indication of things to come, wireless technology is not only here to stay, but is expanding to encompass other uses day by day.

Links:

Gartner Inc.

http://www.gartner.com

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

http://www.ieee.org

CDW-G

http://www.cdwg.com

Sprint Nextel

http://www.sprint.com

Intel Corp.

http://www.intel.com

Motorola Inc.

http://www.motorola.com