In the world of wireless technologies, bandwidth is more precious than gold. It's so scarce and valuable that when you examine the few government applications using wireless, data-transfer rates are measured a few hundred bits at a time.

Without speed or capacity, wireless data networks have remained the poor cousins of information technology. Outside of public safety, only a small number of government agencies have shown any interest in working with wireless data. Those that have admit their functionality is extremely limited.

But the world of 9.6Kbps transfer rates may be over soon. Wireless carriers on several fronts are pushing new standards that could boost capacity well beyond what's available today. For the next several years, digital wireless bandwidth is expected to grow anywhere from 20 to 40 times that of standard analog transmissions. In the near future, wireless users could be running applications with data rates ranging from 344Kbps to 1.25Mbps, according to research firms that follow the technology.

But with every bit of good news about technology, there's some bad news too. Different carriers are pushing different standards to speed wireless along. Tens of millions of dollars will have to be spent on software and hardware to upgrade cellular base stations across the country before this bandwidth is available outside a handful of metro areas. Few businesses and consumers have shown much interest in high-capacity wireless solutions. Without the demand, only a handful of carriers are willing to gamble the kind of money needed to build out a national wireless data network. It's the old "chicken and egg" thing in technology again, observed one analyst. Which comes first: the technology or the demand? No one knows for sure.

At a Snail's Pace

Five years ago, two wireless data companies dominated the market. ARDIS and RAM Mobile Data provided analog wireless services that covered the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Data-transfer rates for these networks ranged from 4.8Kbps to 8Kbps.

Today, wireless data networks can reach speeds of 19.2Kbps thanks, in large part, to CDPD (cellular digital packet data). However, few wireless users ever experience CDPD's top-rated speed because of a phenomenon known as overhead, which cuts throughput. Overhead can occur from a variety of technical factors, or something external, such as car speed as the user tries to download a file while driving. The result can be data-transfer rates as much as 50 percent below the maximum advertised by carriers.

For the uninitiated, the bandwidth gap between wireless and wired connections can appear tremendous. Today's wireless has roughly 500 times less bandwidth than standard local area networks, according to Mike Bauer, director of product management at Cerulean Technology, Inc. Even when compared to dial-up connections, wireless is still about three times slower.

The result, said Bauer, is that the public and private sectors have been forced to build wireless applications within the confines of the bandwidth limitations. That has meant using compression software to reduce the size of the data and adopting communication techniques that reduce the possibility of transmission slowdowns.

Government agencies have also had to carefully parse their workers' information requirements before building a wireless application. "You need to know what information is needed by the field worker and what information is needed in realtime from the field worker," said Bauer. In addition, agencies need to know what systems contain the information that must be sent and received by field workers.

Another major consideration is usability. If the client interface for the wireless application isn't easy to navigate in the field, workers will become frustrated. In other words, explained Bauer, "don't give the field worker a Web browser when all he needs is to click on a few boxes and icons."

Given the bandwidth limitations, the trick to making wireless more palatable

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor