By Richard Shim
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
February 23, 4:00 AM PT
But for several months, perched on a crane high above the work in progress, was a piece of equipment never used in the history of this city's picture-postcard skyline: a wireless hub.
Webcor Builders, the company constructing the 42-story hotel complex, created a wireless network so that engineers and crews could instantly view blueprints and coordinate projects. Although the construction industry has historically been slow to adopt new technologies, the company saw wireless communication as a way to save crucial time and money.
"Competitiveness, especially during the downturn, made us look at how to be more efficient while keeping costs down," said Gregg Davis, Webcor's chief information officer. "We looked at every possible angle to be as efficient as possible, and Wi-Fi was a no-brainer."
So far, much of the corporate Wi-Fi market has been driven by "vertical" industries--those that address specialized markets, such as construction, education, government and health care. Sales of Wi-Fi products to large businesses reached $869.7 million last year, according to a report the Synergy Research Group released last week, but that market is projected to nearly double to $1.7 billion by 2007, as other industries join the trend.
Many large businesses have been reluctant to go wireless because of security concerns and other reasons. But that's expected to change this year, as many of the technologies first tested by vertical industries become commonplace.
Get Up to Speed on...
Get the latest headlines and
company-specific news in our
expanded GUTS section.
True to the entrepreneurial spirit that founded Silicon Valley, products Symbol, Cisco and others developed for specific customer projects are driving much of the wireless market.
Notoriously slow to use new technologies, hospitals, for example, are beginning to use Wi-Fi networks for phone calls. The new phones enable nurses to answer doctors' pages right away rather than run back to a nurse station telephone.
In Florida, nurses use notebooks with Wi-Fi capabilities to check and update patients' charts faster, without having to walk back to a nurse's station to enter information. This saved time that was especially important during a nursing shortage last year, according to Gil Sturgis, a network services manager at an Orlando Hospital.
Hewlett-Packard, like other companies, refined and expanded its wireless products, after vertical customers experimented with the technology. Because of a project that involved a university, HP enabled its products to work with several other technologies. HP has also confronted important privacy issues in working on projects in the health care industry.
Standards take flight
Early products from established networking companies are leading to new standards that can be used throughout the wireless industry. Symbol, for instance, says it played a key role in the development of an international "roaming" standard for wireless networks while working on a project for an aircraft company that sought faster airport turnaround times for its planes.
Because countries use different bands of the radio spectrum, the aviation company was unable to transmit flight log information wirelessly from onboard computers to airports. The problem was solved with the development of a roaming standard known as 802.11d, which essentially tells systems which frequencies to use and when to send data.
Other standards that are making progress include 802.11e, which involves quality of service, and 802.11r, which is meant to improve the roaming of clients as they move from network to network.
Still, security remains "the front-and-center obstacle to mainstream adoption," said Matthew Zanner, manager for HP's ProCurve Networking.
Nothing but air
Beleaguered tech industry
flocks to wireless boom
Even those companies that are sold on wireless are judicious about what information is allowed on their networks.
"Given the kind of data that we're dealing with, the trade-off between productivity and security is worth it, in terms of risk," Webcor's Davis said, "but we still keep payroll and all accounting information on a different network."
The persistent concern for security has given rise to a cottage industry of companies dedicated to developing software, servers and policy for wireless gear, including Wi-Fi Protected Access protections that can be built directly onto certain chips. Industrywide measures are also being developed, such as a security standard known as 802.11i, which is expected to be completed by midyear.
Besides security, several factors can help determine how quickly businesses embrace wireless. As they do when evaluating any potential technology, companies must consider employee learning curves and related training and maintenance issues, as well as outright costs. But these obstacles to adoption are already being overcome in the wireless realm, according to Frank Plastina, chief executive of Proxim, which makes networking equipment with built-in security and network management software.
"We will see (wireless adoption) in a more pronounced way because of the two factors that are almost forcing (information technology) groups to deploy," Plastina said. "The first is the proliferation of Wi-Fi networks in homes and people getting used to using it. Secondly, the whole (cycle of businesses udgrading their PCs): Wi-Fi is being included in client devices, mainly notebooks, as a standard, which is a huge advantage from an incremental-cost point of view--there essentially isn't one."
Webcor's Davis said it would be difficult to put a dollar figure on the productivity increases that resulted from Webcor's use of wireless technology. But he does know that wireless saved him a lot of headaches.
At the very least, he didn't have to figure out how to run cables to the St. Regis site or worry about damage to expensive PCs from the omnipresent dust and dirt of a construction site. In addition, the technology had benefits that extended beyond the project at hand, as workers could check progress more efficiently and thus move on to the next job more quickly.
"For us, it was all a matter of flexibility," said Davis, whose company has about 1,000 employees and $1.4 billion in projects under contract. "Every job site has the potential to be a temporary office, so being able to set up a site in one day, then tear it down two weeks later, is tremendously helpful."