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October 26, 2000

Pitt expert in wireless technology sees logic in University's reliance on hard-wiring of its computers

Stroll the Carnegie Mellon University campus and you'll see students and professors sitting outside on benches, eyes riveted on their laptop computers as they check e-mail, search library catalogues or browse the Web. You may even spy small groups of robots roaming the campus; they're part of a CMU research project that's laying groundwork for a robot colonization of Mars.

It's all made possible by Carnegie Mellon's wireless network. CMU is one of a growing number (still only in the dozens, though) of U.S. colleges and universities where laptop-equipped students, faculty and staff can connect to their institution's computer network and the Internet from anywhere on campus.

Pitt, with its sprawling campus and its commitment to wired desktop PCs and traditional student computing labs, isn't planning to go wireless anytime soon.

But as wireless technology grows ever more sophisticated and prices continue to go down, wireless access to Pitt's network probably will become commonplace within the next five years, predicts a School of Information Sciences assistant professor whose research focuses on wireless technology.

Preshant Krishnamurthy is principal researcher for a project to create a wireless information systems track within SIS's graduate degree programs in telecommunications. The goal is to give students a grasp of issues required for design, deployment, management and administration of future wireless information systems. The National Science Foundation recently granted $394,204 to the project, which also has received grants from Pennsylvania's Link-to-Learn program, Microsoft Corp. and the AT&T Foundation.

Krishnamurthy also is co-leader of a project to create a prototype wireless network within SIS that will be connected to Pitt's computer network. "The wireless component is more or less ready," he says. "We're just waiting for the wired structure to be completed. As soon as that is done, we'll have wireless access to the Pitt network throughout our building." Eventually, students in SIS classrooms will be able to access e-mail, text messages and the Web — even lab equipment and personal files and database collections — all while a lecture, discussion or group meeting is in progress.

Despite his own research and teaching interests, Krishna-murthy disagrees with those professors who grumble that Pitt is wasting money and lagging behind the times by continuing to drill holes and rely on standard, wire-and-wall-jack technology.

"Wireless is not going to replace wiring. It can only augment the services provided by wiring," he says. "When people talk about wireless technology, they sometimes forget that you still need to connect to an access point that is wired to your network.

"Ten years ago, when wireless networks were first being proposed, everybody thought they would replace wiring. You don't have to lay cables, you don't have to rip up old buildings. But there have been huge advances since then in wired communication, too. For example, the ability to send multi-megabit transmissions over regular phone lines.

"Usually, what happens is that wireless is always one step behind wired communication."

Thus, the Residential Networking (ResNet) program to equip Pitt undergraduate residence halls with Ethernet ports "was a good move, in my opinion," says Krishnamurthy. "Wiring dormitories was a good idea because everybody gets a lot of bandwidth. With wireless, there's only so much bandwidth available." As more users connect to a remote access point, each person gets a smaller share of bandwidth, which results in slower network connections.

In general, wireless networks are slower than wired ones. While today's wireless networks typically run at 11 megabits per second, and the next generation of wireless networks is expected to run at up to 54 megabits per second, a desktop PC connected to a current wired network can operate at speeds of 150 megabits per second or faster.

Security also remains a problem for wireless networks. A network's radio frequencies are shared among users of that network, so users can intercept one another's messages. "There has been very little work done in this area so far," says Krishnamurthy. "It's not difficult for a good hacker to hack into most wireless networks. He doesn't have to clip onto a wire somewhere, he can just sit out on the lawn and intercept signals."

But Krishnamurthy predicted that wireless computer systems, like cellular telephones, will quickly improve security through better encryptian technology.

One security precaution used by CMU is requiring users to register their PC cards, the devices that users must plug into their laptops to gain wireless network access. Unless you're registered with Carnegie Mellon, your card won't let you get into the CMU network.

When access cards first came out about seven years ago, they cost $500 each, Krish-namurthy recalls. Last year, he says, the price dropped to $400, and now it's down to $150 with further price cuts likely. "Again, it's similar to what happened with cellular telephones," he says. "As more people buy them and the technology improves, prices go down and suddenly everyone seems to own one."

The same could soon happen, he says, with wireless access to the Internet. "All of the predictions I have seen are that wireless access to the Internet is going to overtake wired access, probably in a couple of years. More people will be connecting to the Internet through their cellular phones and laptops, rather than through desktop computers."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 5

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