The wireless wave

It may not be spring yet, but for resellers targeting the public sector there’s something in the air: Wireless opportunities.

Mobility, WiMAX and mesh networking have been hot markets in the private sector, but municipal, regional and provincial governments as well as educational institutions are increasingly spending on these technologies.

While some opportunities are just emerging or will soon, it’s a good time to start forming alliances or partnerships to get a foot in the door.

Over the past few years, governments have focused on integrating their internal systems and rolling out electronic service delivery initiatives.

“When you spend money on road clearing and trash collection, citizens don’t understand why you have to integrate all these SAP systems,” said Kim Devooght, vice-president of the public sector with IBM Canada in Markham, Ont. “It’s not exactly a vote grabber.”

This will change as some emerging wireless technologies mature and as the public service and political leadership gains technological savvy. In the interim, we’ll see early adopters of point solutions in areas like public safety, policing and healthcare, as well as wireless broadband.

Take fixed WiMAX, for example, whose standard was finalized only last summer. Formally known as 802.16d, it offers municipalities and school boards a cost-effective way to bring broadband access to their users by wirelessly linking buildings.

The first round of products have just received certification. Meanwhile a mobile WiMAX standard, 802.16e, is being worked on, which Intel hopes will be a standard feature in laptops in a few years.

“Broadband access has really become a necessary utility like water, electricity and phone service,” said Carolyn Anderson, director of corporate marketing with Redline Communications in Markham, Ont., a manufacturer of WiMAX hardware. “It’s not always cost-effective to bring fibre into these communities to upgrade the network.”

Right now the opportunity for wireless broadband lies with smaller, more rural communities where municipal governments are charged with bringing in tax dollars and want to attract businesses and retain residents.

“One of the challenges behind deploying a wireless network is getting access to the infrastructure,” said Anderson.

“You need towers to mount the antennas, and often you’re trying to get roof access.” In many cases, municipalities own those buildings so roof rates are free, which means they’re able to cost-effectively roll out a wireless network.

For a non-line-of-sight connection with an indoor install, customers will get a radius of about 1km; for a line-of-sight connection with an outdoor install, they’ll get a radius of at least 5km, while maintaining broadband speeds.

Redline Communications is looking for partners that have experience deploying large-scale wireless networks, since they’ll be deploying access networks as opposed to back-haul networks and require an involved network planning process.

“[WiMAX] still hasn’t caught on quite yet as a mass-market technology within the fixed wireless broadband world,” said Anderson. “It’s still fairly early for the market [but] it’s growing.”

Western play
YourLink Inc., a Saskatoon service provider, offers wireless broadband to the province of Saskatchewan and is actively looking for resellers. It’s also moving into the Alberta market by opening an Edmonton office; it already has one reseller there and is looking for more.

“We provide plug-ins in the sky and the dealers plug into that tower,” said Larry Ayers, manager of wireless systems with YourLink. “We are actively encouraging dealers to be resellers for us of the service – our marketing plan is focused almost exclusively on that.”

He expects WiMAX will standardize the wireless business, just as DOS and Windows standardized the computer industry. And government is going to be a huge market.

“All levels of government will probably use it, all the way from police to power systems,” he said. Because the technology will be cheap, interoperable and easily deployed, different government departments could use different suppliers without being tied down to the monolithic control that telecommunications companies have today, he added.

“In 10 years from now everybody who wants a telecommunications device is going to be going to a dealer for it,” he said. “It’s going to be an exciting world for dealers.”

Eventually, those providing broadband wireless will be able to provide other services, such as voice over IP, over the same pipe, said Charlie Clark, president of I-Netlink Wireless in Brandon, Man. The company has been in the wireless business for five years and serves 80 mainly rural communities in and around central Manitoba. This year it’s adding a series of towers in the north and covering an additional 50 communities.

“The primary market is small towns where they have not been able to attract primary carriers such as cable or DSL,” said Clark. “There’s a huge demand for high-quality broadband services.” In fact, the company hasn’t been able to keep up with demand as it expands its footprint across the province.

WiMAX will enhance wireless broadband by providing further coverage and eventually lowering the cost of the equipment. And with standards in place, I-Netlink will be able to guarantee quality of service for government accounts.

“It comes back to standardization,” said Clark. “Government institutions are sometimes a little leery about non-standard equipment and the legitimization that this will bring to the industry will open up the market, if not from a technical perspective, certainly from an acceptance perspective.”

This is a good time for people who have held back to get into the business, he said. “Probably the way we would enter into other markets is by way of partnerships – it’s still a very hands-on business and you need to have faces in front of your customers.”

Using wireless technology to form mesh networks will also provide a range of opportunities for VARs, said Rick Rotondo, director of marketing for Motorola’s MeshNetworks Product Group in Schaumburg, Ill.

Network hopping
A mesh network routes data, voice and video between nodes by “hopping” from one node to the next, allowing for continuous connections and reconfiguration.

Opportunities include municipal wireless broadband networks, temporary incident response networks; temporary networks for large events, such as conferences or conventions, and, quasi-public-private networks for utilities and power generation.

“A lot of city workers are field workers,” said Rotondo. “Wouldn’t it be nice to push the desktop out into the field where people work?”

Aside from economics, another driver is public safety: Getting information to and from an incident in real time. Police, for example, could send video from the dashboard of one squad car to another or back to headquarters.

“They want to turn windshield time into productive time,” he said. Bandwidth can be dedicated to mobile city workers or first responders, so there isn’t any interference from non-mission-critical applications.

Wireless is also hot in the health-care sector. An IDC Canada survey of 50 Canadian hospitals found that half were acquiring, piloting or considering wireless LAN deployments over the next 12 to 18 months. The No. 1 reason is to enable the use of centralized physician medication order entry (CPOE) systems. There are an estimated 9,000 to 24,000 deaths a year in Canada due to potentially preventable medication errors, which is equivalent to 1.1 million days of additional hospital care. Being able to bring system-based workflow to medical order execution has the potential to improve patient safety.

While only one hospital surveyed by IDC Canada had wirelessly enabled its CPOE system, by the end of 2007, 23 hospitals expect to do the same.

Security opportunities
Security and digital identity is another key area in the public sector. Governments spend three to five per cent of their budgets on security, which is more than most other large organizations, said Alison Brooks, senior public sector analyst at IDC Canada in Toronto.

“In terms of security, the focus is shifting from point solutions to holistic security management [and] governments at the provincial and municipal levels are eyeing shared solutions to their security challenges.”

Managed security is a hot topic in government, and providing managed security services to the public sector is another emerging market for resellers.

Technology solutions are a response to government policy and program challenges, said Brooks. “Governments operate in an environment where there’s increased pressure on service delivery at all levels, budget shortages and demographic pressures,” she said.

More importance is being placed on governance issues such as case management, records management and public-private partnerships.

“All these things indicate that government executives are moving toward a more comprehensive transformational agenda not just limited to online services,” she said.

For resellers who can tap into this transformational agenda and provide innovation to the public sector, opportunities – particularly with wireless technologies – are just waiting to happen.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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