If there was a big networking story in 2006, chances are it came through the airwaves rather than over wires. Most of the biggest issues involved wireless technologies or services, and they’ll keep radiating out into 2007.
Slow progress for fast Wi-Fi
The year started with a vote on a first draft of IEEE 802.11n, the over-100Mbps standard that caused feuding in 2005. It didn’t pass, but vendors got the ball rolling by building to that draft, then some worked to make their products interoperate. As impatience grew, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced it would take the rare step of certifying products before the final standard is complete. But 802.11n itself is still far off, currently forecast for sign-off in March 2008. The Wi-Fi Alliance certification, expected around midyear, offers a glimmer of hope for consumers eager for the technology’s better speed and range.
Municipal wireless networks
It seemed like every big city in the United States, most smaller ones and several overseas started planning their own wireless networks in 2006. Incumbent carriers were alarmed, but AT&T eventually got into the game itself, winning a contract in Riverside, Calif. San Francisco became the focus of concerns about privacy and city control after it chose EarthLink and Google to build its network. The coming year could be a rough one for municipal Wi-Fi, because many networks are set to go live but probably won’t meet expectations for coverage at first, according to municipal networks consultant Craig Settles. They’ll need adjustment before they start delivering the goods later in the year, he said.
A close call for RIM and its BlackBerry
A patent dispute seemingly almost cut the wireless lifeline for thousands of BlackBerry users before Research in Motion (RIM) settled with NTP in March. But Visto also sued the BlackBerry maker and NTP sued Palm, reminding users that the wireless industry is still embroiled in costly intellectual property disputes. At the same time, mobile giants Qualcomm and Nokia appear headed for a confrontation over Nokia’s use of Qualcomm technology that’s at the core of third-generation (3G) mobile gear.
WiMax makes a powerful friend
Although a standard for mobile WiMax was approved in late 2005, this year saw a lot of speculation about whether the new high-speed technology would find a place amid Wi-Fi, 3G and other wireless systems. In the United States, its biggest backer was ClearWire, a small service provider with close ties to top WiMax backer Intel. But in August, Sprint Nextel, one of the biggest U.S. mobile operators and holder of radio licenses around the country that could be used with WiMax, anointed the technology as its next-generation system to complement 3G. The carrier plans to start rolling it out by the fourth quarter of 2007 and offer coverage to 100 million people in 2008, a major endorsement that will help foster an equipment market and economies of scale that will lower prices.
Consolidation in the carrier infrastructure market mirrored the big mergers among service providers, in a year that began with Verizon Communications completing its buyout of MCI and saw Alcatel and Lucent Technologies become Alcatel-Lucent by December. Nokia and Siemens also agreed to merge their telecommunications infrastructure units. Meanwhile, Cisco Systems made a play for the video market with Scientific-Atlanta. The players changed in other areas too, with Motorola buying Symbol Technologies to bolster its enterprise wireless lineup and Brocade Communications Systems buying storage switch rival McData. But one high-profile deal, AT&T’s proposed acquisition of BellSouth, is coming down to the wire and may become the first big networking deal of 2007—or not.
-Stephen Lawson, IDG News Service (San Francisco Bureau)
Check out our CIO News Alerts and Tech Informer pages for more updated news coverage.