The Next Big Thing: Wi-Fi

Wireless connectivity for personal computers is exploding. More than 300,000 PCs are now being added every month to wireless local area networks (WLANs). It is only a matter of time before Wi-Fi ("Wireless Fidelity") sweeps through vehicles, as well.
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Wireless connectivity for personal computers is exploding. More than 300,000 PCs are now being added every month to wireless local area networks (WLANs). It is only a matter of time before Wi-Fi ("Wireless Fidelity") sweeps through vehicles, as well. The underlying technology, also known as 802.11, is immensely popular because it offers tremendous bandwidth basically for free. These two attributes are essential to deliver entertainment content conveniently and affordably to the vehicle. Other technologies require far costlier land-based infrastructures to deliver similar bandwidth. Subscribers to these other systems must ultimately foot the bill for that behind-the-scenes equipment. The take rate for Wi-Fi is phenomenal. Intel alone expects to sell 40 million, Wi-Fi-enabled devices in 2004. General Motors installed Wi-Fi throughout its 25 plants with about 35 to 65 access points per 80-acre plant.

The technology relies on very low-power, radio transmissions. The reception area is about 100 meters. Innovative use of communications technology, large, on-board data storage and special-purpose processors give 802.11 a lot of punch.

A variant of Wi-Fi known as 802.11(a), or Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC), is aimed at vehicle applications. It allows vehicles to send and receive data at up to 54 Mb/sec. while traveling at highway speeds. At this rate, an entire MP3-formatted music recording can be transmitted to a vehicle in a few seconds.

Robert Schumacher, General Director of Wireless Business at Delphi Corp., believes that high-value entertainment is what customers want in telematics. Practical delivery of this content is possible only at megabit rates.

The 802.11 technology is likely to take hold in vehicles because the home/office proliferation of Wi-Fi has already driven component costs down to mass-market levels. Even Best Buy is selling the PCMCIA network cards. Furthermore, 802.11 delivers content by individual "pull." This contrasts with mass broadcasting that blankets the same content to everyone in a huge, reception area. Especially intriguing is the ability of several moving vehicles to instantaneously form a network. In seconds, they can exchange voluminous amounts of data through self-forming, self-configuring networks. MeshNetworks (Mailtand, FL) is a leader in these so-called ad hoc, mobile networks. They contrast with the traditional hub-and-spoke model.

Other technologies and firms are in competition with 802.11, however. Cellular phone companies, in particular, need to maintain a strong presence in vehicles simply to survive. Over 70% of all cell phone calls today are in a vehicle. Current cellular technology moves data at a snail's pace: 9 Kb/sec to 14 Kb/sec. The forthcoming generation of cellular systems namely, 2½G and 3G, even after spending billions more on new infrastructure, will still be slower than 802.11.

Another technology, ultra wide band (UWB), has blisteringly fast data transmission speeds. Unfortunately UWB lacks a huge, existing installed home/office market to make it affordable in the short term.

A third alternative is digital satellite radio, namely XM and Sirius. These two networks consumed more than $2 billion to build the infrastructure before the first subscriber was on board. Both will lose money at least for the next two years. To break even they must entice at least 2 million vehicle owners to sign up.

Look for 802.11 units to get into vehicles first through aftermarket sales, speculates Delphi's Schumacher. Certainly by 2005, an 802.11 unit could become a manufacturer-installed option for new vehicle buyers.

In the new 802.11 networks it is still unclear where entertainment content will reside. For instance, it is possible for a vehicle to play music that's stored in land-based servers or jukeboxes. Such streaming music could even originate from one's home media server. Alternately entertainment content could be held in flash memory or hard drives right in the vehicle.

Cellular phone technology can co-exist with 802.11. For instance, Project Rainbow, a consortium of companies including Intel, AT&T Wireless, Verizon and IBM are investigating a unified, national network. The vehicle would connect via 802.11, for instance, when a land-based, "intelligent access point" is nearby. If no high-speed 802.11 connection or "hot spot" is in the vicinity, then the vehicle would transparently revert to an ordinary, cellular phone link. Of course, this would only be practical for low-bandwidth applications such as voice communication or email.

Most intriguing is to shift much of the land-based functionality, that is, the infrastructure, right into the mobile device itself. For instance, MeshNetworks aims to have each vehicle act as a repeater/router, not just as an end device. Data could "multi-hop" down the highway from vehicle to vehicle. Operating across such a self-formed mesh greatly extends the reach of each vehicle, especially where traffic is dense. MeshNetworks claims it will soon have such capabilities embedded in a network card manufactured in production quantities. Its CEO, Masood Garahi, sees an early application in the public-safety arena. Today fire, police, and emergency medical personnel race to a site when a disaster occurs; unfortunately they lack electronic links to each other. Ad hoc, mobile network technology is ideal for such spontaneous assembly of individuals who need to connect and communicate quickly.

If 802.11 takes hold in the auto industry, expect tomorrow's vehicle to be much more than a mere "mobility solution." The technology could transform both how we get entertained to even how we interact with those nearest us.