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'Always on' wireless: Like flicking a switch

At their best, in-building wireless systems offer the ease, low cost and functionality of a utility.

An in-building wireless system recently installed in University of Chicago's state-of-the-art Comer Children's Hospital has spawned at least one nagging problem for Eric Yablonka, the facility's chief information officer.

Enamored with how the technology makes their jobs easier, hospital staffers keep bugging the vice president for information technology at the University of Chicago Health System to retrofit the other 70 buildings in the system similarly. "Our nurses love it," Yablonka says. "This makes their lives easier and patient floors quieter. It was the absolute right thing for us to do."

The pediatric hospital's new wireless infrastructure aggregates two-way radio, public-safety radio, paging, Wi-Fi and cellular networks into one system that runs throughout the building, augmenting signals with antennas spread around each of its six floors.

In-building wireless utilities--so named because, like electricity and water, they are an "always on," integral part of a structure--are drawing growing interest from businesses that want a unified and flexible wireless system. The technology also creates a foundation for users to easily implement new applications, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, that may be needed later and can be installed without further retrofitting.

A host of companies, mostly start-ups, have emerged to feed the burgeoning demand for in-building wireless systems, including the likes of InnerWireless, LGC Wireless, Spotwave Wireless, Powerwave Technologies and MobileAccess.

The systems that InnerWireless and its competitors are installing enable users to wander through a building and still maintain a strong cell phone signal--increasingly important for 3G services, whose data rates depend largely upon signal strength--on the Wi-Fi network. The system would even help public-safety workers communicate inside stairwells in an emergency. Instead of using a mishmash of devices and networks, a building is designed for wireless from the beginning, or retrofitted so that all of these capabilities can be supported on one system.

" just like heating and cooling, lights, plumbing and electricity."
--Ed Cantwell, CEO, InnerWireless

Today, roughly 15 percent of commercial buildings have some form of wireless utility, says Lance Wilson, director of wireless research at technology research firm ABI Research.

But Ed Cantwell, president and CEO of InnerWireless, which installed Comer Children's Hospital's in-building wireless utility, argues that wireless systems will soon become as critical to the workplace as running water. "If you ask someone what the (return on investment) on plumbing is, they couldn't tell you, because it's just part of what the building needs to survive," Cantwell says. "Wireless is like that. People can debate if wireless is a utility, but I contend that it already is just like heating and cooling, lights, plumbing and electricity."

Some might view Cantwell's characterization as overly optimistic. Jeff Hipschman, a senior vice president at commercial real-estate broker CB Richard Ellis, says most of his clients do not expect a building to provide wireless access, though many smaller tenants would probably be interested. As for the larger tenants, they typically want to tailor their own wireless systems, he says.

Yet there are several examples of recent construction projects that include in-building wireless. New York's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, part of the newly built Time Warner Center, and the new Bobcat Arena in Charlotte, N.C., each have a wireless utility, designed primarily to help transmit public-safety signals and boost cell phone signals.

David Heckaman, who designed the wireless systems for both projects, says the challenge in getting this type of infrastructure in place is making builders aware of its advantages, such as cost savings that result from installing unified systems in large buildings and business opportunities that it can open up. Heckaman, who owns Heckaman Group, says builders typically bid out each communication system to individual players such as cable, telephone and data firms, which then install their own technologies.

"This will change our world like the Internet did 10 years ago."
--Eric Yablonka, CIO, Comer Children's Hospital

While each of those firms will handle some aspect of the wireless infrastructure, they rarely work together to create a unified utility. That's where Heckaman comes in. He works with existing wireless utility providers and attempts to show builders and executives the benefits of putting all of their wireless systems into one pipe--a form of systems integration.

The ability to adapt to future needs is a key selling point: "All the benefits are not tangible today," Heckaman says. "Because things happen so quickly in technology, this can allow you to offer RFID tracking, cellular tracking, and other technologies that may not even exist yet through the pipe."

The ability to offer new services is one reason Yablonka chose to install a wireless utility. He envisions being able to use cellular technology to track patients in the hospital as well as send them reminders, once they're home, about medication and appointments.

There's also the security issue. Yablonka says Wi-Fi, which is the common wireless broadband technology found in homes and offices, simply isn't secure enough for transmitting medical data. Using a more dependable and more secure cellular system would be a way to address that issue, he argues. As for other options, Yablonka expects to see uses for in-building wireless that he can't even imagine yet.

"Wireless is getting faster and faster, and its utility is increasing all the time," he says. "This will change our world like the Internet did 10 years ago. When I think about the next few years, I can see managing 2,000 to 3,000 cell phones and RFID tags, and I need a way to manage that ecosystem of devices that is secure and cost-effective."

A key benefit of installing an in-building system is increased employee productivity. That's what drove Applied Materials, the world's largest semiconductor equipment maker, to install them in more than 100 of its buildings in 13 countries.

John Hoffman, general manager of the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip equipment maker's Etch group, says the move enables employees to use laptops or corporate cell phones in any Applied building around the globe. Workers also can rely on the push-to-talk function on cell phones to communicate, a particularly valuable function in industrial buildings. "It's very simple to move people and assets around when they are not hard-wired," Hoffman says, "And the walkie-talkie functions are good for work groups on our manufacturing floors."

While he acknowledged that a return on investment on in-building wireless systems might be tough to calculate, Hoffman says the results have benefited Applied. "In this case, individual productivity is difficult to measure, so we have anecdotal evidence, but not quantitative evidence, that this is good for us," he says.

But broad-based in-building systems aren't for everyone. In general, they make sense for buildings with 300,000 square feet or more, Heckaman says. For companies with smaller operations, however, installing secured wireless routers for Wi-Fi connectivity might be more cost-effective.

Hoffman also says companies must consider how always-on connectivity might affect corporate culture. At Applied, one unintended consequence was an increase in distractions during meetings, he says.

"Now we start off meetings with, 'Screens down, Blackberrys off and cell phones on vibrate,'" Hoffman says.

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