Wi-Fi still a winner

The concept of mobility has reinvigorated the IT and telecoms industries with end-user requirements becoming increasingly sophisticated.

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By  Ronan Shields Published  June 27, 2007

Wi-Fi is a technology that came to prominence some five or six years ago just as a consumer application for wireless connectivity to the internet. Today the focus has shifted to newer, more robust technologies such as 3G and WiMAX, raising questions for the continued need for Wi-Fi as a connectivity solution.

The business case for Wi-Fi technology in the face of WiMAX needs justifying, not least because of Wi-Fi's reliance on ADSL backhaul, and the enhanced reach of WiMAX networks.

The UAE's incumbent telacommunications company Etisalat is clearly an advocate for the long-term relevance of Wi-Fi having launched over 230 i-Zone Wi-Fi hotspots in the country since July 2005. Etisalat claims that the number of hotspots is rising on a daily basis across the region, and not just in the UAE.

"The hospitality sector and major coffee shops have driven this service since its introduction, and we are endeavouring to expand our network further to cover all public places in UAE," Omar Al Muzakki, director of product marketing at Etisalat, told CommsMEA.

Al Muzakki states that retail establishments have been a major driver of Wi-Fi hotspots across the globe, and that Etisalat is looking to emulate this trend in the UAE by deploying access points in the outlets of various power-retailers in the country.

"A Wi-Fi hotspot service can help enhance visitor footfall and convenience for a company's own staff teams," Al Muzakki explains.

Despite some predictions of head-to-head competition between Wi-Fi and WiMAX many industry players see the two technologies as complementing each other, particularly in emerging markets such as those found in Middle East and Africa.

Al Muzakki suggests WiMAX and Wi-Fi will coexist in the near future and that the two technologies will become increasingly complementary in their use and application.

"WiMAX, typically, is not a replacement for Wi-Fi, rather it complements it by extending its reach and providing a ‘Wi-Fi like' user experience across a larger geographical area," he said.

"Wi-Fi technology was designed and optimised for Local Area Networks (LAN), whereas WiMAX was designed and optimised for Metropolitan Area Networks (MAN)," he added.

Al Muzakki cites a 2005 study from research company Pyramid Research that predicts the number of Wi-Fi users in the Middle East and Africa would grow from 1.1 million in 2006 to approximately 2.8 million in 2009.

Gilles Delente, chief operating officer of Wificom, a global supplier to the wireless services industry, claims that vendors are the chief protagonists in the global push for wireless technologies, and that Wi-Fi remains one of the technologies that continues to be marketed.

"Vendors have driven the wireless market, as they are often looking to increase sales revenues by bringing new products to the market with enhanced features. This is playing a significant role in the development of both Wi-Fi and WiMAX technologies," he says.

Delente highlights Intel's WiMAX-compatible Intel Centrino (Wi-Fi) chipset as a prime example of the trend, and claims the chipset will reach mass-market penetration within three years.

"End-users expect multimedia services on the go, and both the IT and consumer electronics industries have responded accordingly by bringing the products to market that can facilitate this," stated Delente.

"There is a clear demand in the region but the wireless market is somewhat stunted by network operators mulling over whether or not investing in Wi-Fi is a sound move," he asserted.

The hesitation on the part of operators does not necessarily signal the demise of Wi-Fi, Delente suggested. "Some people say that it is a little bit late in the day for WiMAX technology to have a major impact on the market, and this leads me to believe that Wi-Fi connectivity will be a viable option for operators for at least another three years."

Regulation, as always, is likely to have a role to play in the further development of the of Wi-Fi and other similar technologies. "There are a number of problems facing companies looking to use WiMAX technology. First of all there is the high level of market regulation in this region, which is delaying the deployment of wireless technology," explained Delente.

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