Wireless technology: Chartering the rising trend

There are now many access points for wireless connectivity around Singapore. These access points are commonly known as 'hotspots'.

By Gangasudhan

What is wireless technology? Is it just the ‘removal of wires’ from connectivity products? If that is the case, does a portable radio running on batteries count as a wireless device? The answer is surprising: Yes and No. It is not a wireless device just because of the batteries and lack of a power supply cord. But it is indeed a ‘wireless device’ because it uses radio frequencies to receive information. This is a simplistic example of ‘wireless technology’.

Modern telecommunications started as early as 1896, in the form of the telegraph system. By the 1950s microwave and radio frequencies were already in widespread use (e.g. walkie-talkies) and by 1962, the first communication satellite (Telstar) was launched into orbit. By 1990, a 66-satellite system called the Iridium System had been created.

Today, we have wireless Internet connectivity as well as other telecommunication devices all around us. In many instances, we are not even aware of their existence. One of the most common uses of wireless technology is the anti-theft tag that we see on the merchandise of departmental stores everywhere. Other examples include delivery services that use wireless technology to monitor the movement of their packages, information kiosks that use wireless connectivity to provide their services and even car-park attendants and police officers who use wireless tools to screen vehicles and issue summons.

Going wireless with Wi-Fi
The latest development in wireless technology has been the proliferation of Wi-Fi certified products. Wi-Fi, short for Wireless Fidelity, is a very secure, highly reliable and widely compatible connectivity standard. Wi-Fi certified products can be used with one another without fear of incompatibility. Because of this ability to connect multiple devices from different manufacturers, Wi-Fi has become highly popular and widely accepted.

The proliferation of this technology has created many growth opportunities, and much money and resources have been invested in Singapore to develop Wi-Fi. There are now many access points for wireless connectivity around Singapore. These access points are commonly known as ‘hotspots’. These hotspots allow those using Wi-Fi enabled Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) devices and lap-top computers to connect to the Internet. Several food and beverage outlets such as Starbucks and Burger King have already approached Singtel to set up such hotspots. McDonald’s Wi-Fi networks were installed by Australian-based SkyNetGlobal, in over 125 of its outlets.

As at March 2004, the total number of hotspots in Singapore is well over 600. That works out to almost one hotspot for every square kilometre of the country. This figure is projected to reach 3 hotspots for every square kilometre by 2007, making Singapore the most connected country in the world with regards to wireless broadband, according to IDC, an international analyst firm belonging to the International Data Group (IDG).

Setting up a hotspot is actually quite simple and does not require much specialised skill. There are computer programs and software products that are readily available to help any user install and configure a hotspot. An example of such a software package is ZoneCD which is both comprehensive and extremely user-friendly. On top of that, it is an open source software that can be freely distributed and used by anyone.

Professionals in wireless technology
However, when organisations want to implement large scale wireless networks, as in the case of McDonald’s hotspot launch, a professional service provider would be engaged instead. These professionals help set up and maintain large networks for various organisations. They offer comprehensive solutions that meet all of their client’s wireless networking needs. Examples of such firms include SkyNetGlobal, an Australian-based firm with offices and clients all over the world, and Marvell, a US-based firm which does research and development in addition to providing wireless networking solutions.

It’s not so much a matter of knowing how to set up a Wi-Fi network, but rather the need to understand how to apply the technology, that drives the business of professional Wi-Fi service providers. The bottom-line is simple – they are primarily interested in identifying areas where they can generate revenue and profits through Wi-Fi services.

One very good example would be the use of Wi-Fi networks in public transportation. Analysts have identified travel locations – airplanes, trains and other places where traveling business users are essentially captive – as business opportunities for Wi-Fi service providers. Even Singapore Airlines has considered adding Wi-Fi enabled connectivity to its long-haul flights.

In response to the growing popularity of such technology, various schools have begun offering courses in wireless technology. The NITEC (National ITE Certificate) in Electronics (Wireless LAN) and the Higher NITEC in Wireless Technology, both of which are offered by the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), are just two examples of courses offered by local institutions.

The purpose of these specialised courses is to turn individuals into professionals that can offer networking solutions and technical assistance. Once they’ve joined the industry, they will gain valuable working experience, and in time move on to provide consultancy to organisations that need wireless networking solutions.

The possiblities that lie ahead
Wireless technology has tremendous potential. It is a platform for other organisations to expand their business and offer better services.

Like the food & beverage and airline industries, other sectors have leveraged on wireless technology to bring greater value to their customers. Take Surbana Technologies, the technology arm of HDB Corporation, for example. It has successfully developed a large-scale remote monitoring system for 100 residential buildings in Singapore. The system was used to monitor the status of lifts in these buildings in an island wide trial. Problems such as passenger entrapments, lift faults and impending equipment failures were sent back to a command centre via wireless GPRS, the same technology used in mobile phones.

Previously, these problems would have to be manually tracked, and reported back to headquarters via leased lines. The implementation of a wireless system would thus result in immediate savings, as the GPRS system is far more affordable than expensive leased lines. The pilot project has also improved response and recovery times of service faults arising in all HDB residential estates. Surbana Technologies now has plans to use their technological know-how to export a customised solution to China.

This is certainly a very encouraging success story for local businesses. Wireless technologies are still very much in their infancy, so its full capabilities are still being constantly explored. Singapore has one of the highest penetration rates of mobile and broadband services in Asia, so the infrastructure for wireless services is already solidly entrenched. What the industry needs now are sufficiently trained professionals who can make use of that infrastructure to create world-class solutions that can be sold around the world.

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