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WiFi Hits the Street

Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) is redefining mobility and Wall Street firms are jumping on the bandwagon to boost-worker productivity by installing wireless LANs with high-speed Internet access.

Wall Street firms are beginning to deploy wireless-local-area networks (WLANs) across their corporate enterprises to boost worker productivity, so they can roam from office to office without being tethered to a plug in the wall. WiFi - short for Wireless Fidelity (and also known as 802.11b wireless Ethernet) - is one of the hottest technologies spreading across offices and homes.

All an individual needs is a network-interface card on the laptop and a box on the wall to transmit to. With those two simple ingredients, plus a broadband connection, individuals can wander up to 300 yards, uninterrupted, and access the Internet with their laptop.

Merrill Lynch has been installing wireless LANs across its corporate campuses, after running pilots, and has had the technology on its radar screen for the past 18 months, reports Aron Miodownik, global head of technology strategy and chief technology officer for Merrill's Global Securities Research and Economics Group.

For example, Merrill Lynch Investment Management had a wireless LAN campus for a year, he adds. "We're putting this out for a lot of administrative groups," Miodownik explains. "We could all pick up our laptops and move to another office and just start working. We don't have to arrange for someone to move a PC to link it up to a data port," he says.

However, Merrill is only installing WLANs in buildings that have upgraded their networks with built-in TCP/IP and DHCP - Digital Host Communications Protocol - a network-connectivity protocol that configures an IP address dynamically. "It makes it incredibly inexpensive to do it," says Miodownik

In the wake of Sept. 11, Merrill is using this much more, says Miodownik, who adds it has become an important part of Merrill's disaster-recovery strategy. "If one building is not accessible because of terrorists or a fire, and if there was a vacant building in lower Manhattan, we could go in there, put up a wireless port, and that afternoon people can pick up their laptops and can be working," he says.

In addition to wide usage in Merrill, a lot of its corporate customers and all of its vendors, including Hewlett Packard and Compaq, are using WiFi.

At Charles Schwab, the brokerage firm is experimenting "a bit" with wireless LANs by establishing an 802.11b environment in one of its branches, says Robert Sofman, senior vice president, global wireless solutions group. It equips its customer-service representatives with Palm devices to provide basic transactions for people.

"If the branch got particularly busy, our reps could actually be on the floor with a Palm device that they could do basic kinds of transactions, changing addresses, ordering forms, opening accounts, that sort of thing," says Sofman.

From a technology standpoint, Schwab had to create an access point that allows for wireless-data transmission and install network cards in various devices to take the data and receive the data from the access points it established, he explains.

However, Schwab has not deployed the WLANs. "It's really more in the category of R&D and prototyping," says Sofman, adding that the company has more to learn about the technology and to explore next-generation services. "In this case, it's a learning opportunity for us and we haven't made a decision to move forward with rolling it out as a live application," he adds.

Even so, WiFi is proliferating, not only within corporations, but also across metropolitan public areas and within consumers' homes.

In 2001, WLANs sprang up in more than 1,000 public locations in the United States, including airports, hotels, convention centers, coffee shops and restaurants, according to Gartner Group. Public venues, such as Starbucks, Mariott Hotels and airport lounges, now offer wireless-Internet access, though the consumer has to pay for it.


What's Next?
Wireless LANs work with laptops today, but soon they will work with PDAs by putting a wireless card in the back of a PDA. Blackberry and Voicestream have bought Mobile Star and are trying to link two separate wireless protocols to one device - WLANS with GPRS, says Aron Miodownik, global head of technology strategy at Merrill Lynch and chief technology officer for Global Securities Research and Economics Group. "This will give you the composite experience of e-mails and short messages that happen on GPRS. But if you're in Starbucks, and you have a strong network, you can stream video down." Ivy is Editor-at-Large for Advanced Trading and Wall Street & Technology. Ivy is responsible for writing in-depth feature articles, daily blogs and news articles with a focus on automated trading in the capital markets. As an industry expert, Ivy has reported on a myriad ... View Full Bio

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