Wireless comes off second best in technology tussle

IT wasn’t so long ago that someone realised it was possible to use the Internet without being tied down to old-fashioned wire connections

But while there is no question about the popularity and versatility of mobile phones, for example, it seems other wireless applications have not enjoyed the same success.

The widespread introduction of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) services in Perth during the past two years has dampened the efforts of some companies to establish a committed client base for wireless services. The relative ease and low cost involved in setting up a high-speed connection using existing phone lines has been too tempting for many businesses and individuals, and wireless has in many ways been relegated to that group of ideas filed under the “nice idea, but …” category.

This is broadly, if not exclusively, reflected in the success of the few companies that have dared to set up wireless ventures.

After establishing its Perth operations in October 1999 – and expanding into eastern states in 2000 and 2001 – Pulsat Communications announced in June 2001 it would stop expanding its wireless PoP network to instead focus on reselling other carriers’ terrestrial services.

In mid-July that year the company left the telecommunications sector altogether to further its media operations, soon after reporting a loss of $8 million for the 2000-01 financial year.

Today, Pulsat operates under the name Pearl Healthcare, having moved into the business of pro-viding dental laboratory and dental treatment services.

WA’s best-known ISP, iiNet, launched its Cityspan wireless product on Valentine’s Day 2000. But neither business nor residential consumers was prepared to commit en masse to the service, and a true and lasting engagement became a distant hope.

iiNet broadband services manager Stephen Harley said Cityspan’s life expectancy had exceeded iiNet’s expectations, but the service had been withdrawn from the four suburban areas in which it was originally available, including Gnangara, Bicton and Canning Vale.

iiNet still operates two antenna towers on the QV1 building and four on the AAPT tower, and will continue to offer the service while there are customers for it.

Mr Harley said a number of factors had combined to diminish interest in wireless Internet services, including the effect of adverse atmospheric conditions, increasing ADSL, fibre and satellite services, and a degradation in service caused by home hobbyists and other groups transmitting on the same frequency.

The last problem is a result of the nature of wireless transmissions, which use the area of spectrum found at about 2.4 gigahertz.

The technology used is known as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 standard, in which a modulation scheme (Complementary Code Keying) is used to transmit data signals at 11 megabits-per-second (Mbps). Users need only buy an 802.11 card, an antenna and be located in a position that allows line of sight contact to a wireless point of presence.

Access to the 2.4 Ghz spectrum is free for non-industrial purposes, and it has therefore attracted home hobbyists, who set up their own ‘private’ networked communities to share server content, games and other files, just as many businesses do.

Mr Harley said that, while data transfers were encrypted and thus safe from security breaches, iiNet’s wireless base stations nonetheless could pick up other traffic, which often slowed transfer speeds.

The transfer speeds, particularly the fact that these are symmetrical, unlike ADSL, are one of the main benefits wireless services offer.

To compare, Telstra’s wireless services are centred entirely on the Global System for Mobile communication/General Packet Radio Service (GSM/GPRS) mobile telephone networks, which, while providing access over much greater areas, are much slower at transferring data than the 802.11 standard. GPRS transmits data at rates between 56 and 114 Kbps and, unlike mobile phone calls, is charged on the basis of how much data is downloaded rather than for how long a connection is maintained.

Another Perth company offering wireless Internet is Eftel. The company’s senior sales adviser, Gary Dundon, said while some companies merely offered indoor equipment that had been modified for outdoor use, Eftel used an Israeli-made outdoor product used by military forces.

This particular product changes the frequency it operates on 11 times a second, making it resistant to jamming and interference by other radio noise. Despite this sophistication, however, Eftel only offers its wireless services to limited areas – mainly where clients are unable to receive ADSL services.

Such areas in Perth include the industrial estates of Osborne Park, Malaga, Welshpool, Kewdale, and parts of Canning Vale.

“We probably see it as a method of leapfrogging into new areas where ADSL isn’t available, and as ADSL becomes available, maybe swapping those customers over to ADSL and moving the wireless further out again,” Mr Dundon said.

Balcatta-based Rural and Remote Communications is another company hoping to convert potential clients to the wonders of wireless communications. Born from the ashes of Capetel (and before that, Cape Telecommunications), RRC intends to construct a wireless network that also will be used for free telephone calls.

The company produces 12-volt-powered handheld receivers that connect to normal phone handsets and can also be plugged into car cigarette lighters.

The intention behind this is that laptop computer users will be able to connect to workplace networks at a far cheaper rate than is currently available.

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