BT research - a peek behind the scenes at future wireless

by Stewart Davies | posted on 25 March 2003

There is no doubt that wireless technology is beginning to evolve into a true IT revolution; many people are now beginning to get involved in order to use the applications that it offers. Stewart Davies, chief executive of BTexact Technologies, BT's advanced research and technology business, is an avid user of Blackberry, a personal digital assistant that allows him to access email on the move. He knows first hand the benefits that wireless technology can offer and is looking forward to seeing wireless change the way that we do so many things ...

Delve into the world of wireless technologies and you'll encounter an almost bewildering array of the "new" - designed to interconnect portable wireless terminals to existing wired networks or connect different devices together to create personal networks known as picoNets or picoLANs. There's no shortage of acronyms either - WLANs or WiFi, DECT, PANs ... oh, and Bluetooth, named after a Danish king, apparently famous for reconciling warring factions.

My question is - what will we use this technology for? Well, first of all, let's start by saying that it works. For most people, accustomed to mobile phones and the problems inherent in the wireless technologies they use - mass coverage, the need to keep per unit costs low - wireless might sound like the lesser option. But what if I were to tell you that BT puts in many point-to-point radio links that offer 99.999% availability? That's probably about the same level of reliability as a fibre connection, when you consider the odds of having the cables dug up by a JCB! It's not wireless that's the intrinsic problem, it's how we use it.

And it's fast and getting faster. Take WiFi - the popular name given to a wireless local area network (WLAN) standard which has gone for some time under the unwieldy title of IEEE 802.11b. Marketing people claim 11 Mbps rates for the current technology but I tend to use a 6 Mbps figure because at the moment that's probably what you'll actually get. Looking ahead, the next generation of technology is already beginning to emerge - which offers you 54 Mbps headline - say 25 Mbps. That's not bad for home or personal office use. What's more, there are key developments on the wireless horizon that have the potential to deliver both cheaper and more flexible mobile phone services and significantly boost deployment of wireless local area networks (WLANs). Microwave Photonics is a term that describes a technology that combines microwave and optical technology, and also the name of the businesses in BTexact Technologies' Brightstar corporate technology incubator.

The breakthrough it offers is known as an 'optical wireless gateway' - a device that converts light in an optical fibre directly into radio signals. And it can do this no matter which protocol is used for the wireless communication and at wireless frequencies up to 40GHz, covering the entire anticipated frequency range of wireless devices. Better still, there's no need to visit the base station to equip it to deliver a new protocol - you just send the information to it in the new format.

This alone will dramatically reduce the cost of deploying wireless technology. But add to that the fact that our new technology is powered by the light that travels down the fibre. This means there's no need for base stations to be located close to mains power - an added plus.

So, with all these advances in wireless technology, what will the future look like? I think flexibility - rather than just straight mobility - is the key. After all, wireless is never going to completely replace fixed wires - there simply isn't enough spectrum available. Traditionally, WLANs were used in sectors such as retailing and warehousing for inventory purposes or to provide instant access to large quantities of information. Then usage spread into mainstream business. Major corporations and smaller businesses now use WLANs on their sites for a number of reasons. These range from providing access to data in meeting rooms, to allowing people to hot-desk or work on the move, to providing access between sites, to enabling usage of listed buildings or buildings with "hard-to-wire" features such as atriums.

The common factor is that wireless technologies save time and money. A survey conducted by Sage Research in 2001, which looked at US users, suggested that the use of WLANs could save nurses and people working in the finance industry around 15 hours a week, simply because they didn't have to keep going back to their desk to record or check new data.

Taking the idea that bit further, researchers at BTexact working with BT's property people came up with "Futurespace", a concept that takes a new look at the workplace and the way we work. The idea is simple. Take wireless networking and an internal rechargeable power supply. Add a combination of specially designed furniture, which can be moved around the floor area to provide a variety of different workstations or meeting areas at a moment's notice. The result is a very flexible working environment that has proved an instant hit with advertising agencies and other sectors that want their people to work creatively. What's more, it can save substantial amounts of space - no small thing when a business has a central city location and pays premium rates for the privilege.

But according to some of the researchers currently working at BTexact, projects of this kind are just the tip of the iceberg. They say we're at the very beginning of a rolling programme which started with WLANs, will be reinforced by Bluetooth over the next few years and will end up in a truly "intelligent" environment within the next ten years or so. We're seeing the very early stages of this with the launch of, for example, of BT OpenZone - BT's recently launched public wireless local area network (WLAN) service in the UK. Plans are to have 400 sites operational by 2003, increasing to as many as 4,000 by 2005. Indeed, according to analysts, Frost & Sullivan, the European WLAN market, comprising access points, notebook, desktop and PDA add-ons as well as gateway devices, will be worth $976m in 2006.

Looking further ahead, researchers are talking about completely immersive environments, where screens and other facilities will be set into the very fabric of our buildings, on the streets and even in our clothing. An environment where your PDA, for example, will establish where you are - at home, at a railway station, at the office - and work out which facilities are available to you automatically. People will no longer think in terms of how to do things - "I want to boot up my computer and go to Outlook and send an email" - the focus will be back on what they want to achieve. The devices they use - PDAs, notebook PCs and so on - will work out how best to meet their needs given the communication services available at their current location.

The end result will be that we'll move away from "wanting a computer" to being able, seamlessly, to access information, communicate with people or even find out when we need more milk - because our intelligent fridge will make sure we're reminded. Computing will become ubiquitous, built into clothes or bags or even door handles, which means it will become almost transparent. As it does now, wireless technology will fill the gap between fixed and mobile computing - we just won't have to think about it.

Stewart Davies is chief executive of BTexact Technologies and Brightstar.