The Road Wirer
Virtual Private Networks
by Mark Sedenquist
"Dynamic Space" is the metaphor that I have used a number of times as a working litmus test to gauge progress in the wireless communication arena. Although the overt simplicity of my original working definition makes me cringe when I reread it, I am encouraged by recent real-world developments. One of those indicators is the growth and implementation of the "Virtual Private Networks" (VPN), which have become as commonplace an acronym in the corporate world as ISDN, RAM, PDA, etc. But for the rest of us, a couple of words of explanation may be helpful. Networks, in their simplest form, include the physical connection of groups of computers by wireline cable. The costs and logistics of making such connections usually ensure that hardwired networks make the most sense in contiguous offices or buildings.
A few years ago, corporations began to use public networks, (of which the Internet is the most famous), to connect to buildings at locations farther away than could be reasonably connected using physical cables. These came to be known as "Extranets." As more and more corporate workers became mobile, the costs of having these employees use public dial-up modem systems and pay the long distance phone charges escalated to the point where corporations were eager to find a less expensive way to have their employees communicate with their home Intranet systems.
And so it was that the concept of Virtual Private Networks came into being. In the simplest versions, a secure "tunnel" is created between the mobile worker's laptop and the corporate servers. Data moving through this tunnel travels via the Internet in packets and is encrypted with a variety of security and management codes to prevent lost or damaged data.
Because of the slower speeds currently available in wireless mode (rarely above 14.4Kbps), most mobile workers use local dial-up access to these secure tunnels, but with the advent of the new packet data network overlays known as "2½ G" technologies, wireless networks are expected to be able to provide data rates in a range of 56K to 144Kbps. The earliest deployment of services could begin as early as the first quarter of 2001.
For more information about VPNs, consult the site managed by Tina Bird. The site is noncommercial and vendor-neutral. One of the reasons that VPNs are interesting is that they could be created between vehicles, appliances, vending machines, and any other place where wired connectivity is not currently possible, like the end of the pier at Falmouth Harbor, Cape Cod, or a raft in the Colorado River. This does not exactly fit the parameters of "Dynamic Space," but it does seem to be a step in the right direction.
One of my continuing concerns about enabling wireless access to individuals "any time, anywhere" is the possibility of misuse of the information about users' locations. Evan Hendricks' Privacy Times is an excellent resource for keeping track of privacy issues in the wireless world. The Center for Democracy and Technology is another source of information that I find useful. The following link provides suggestions for removing inappropriate efforts to obtain information about your on-line use: http://opt-out.cdt.org/ That being said, I wouldn't mind attaching a GPS-embedded chip to my luggage the next time I need to travel by plane to a distant city. I like the notion of tracking my suitcase if it accidentally boards the wrong plane.
One of the ongoing challenges facing Dashboarders is maintaining all the various wireless services necessary to increase the likelihood of actually making a connection in a wild and wire-free place. There is a Wireless ISP that is attempting to be the one-stop shopping center for Dashboaders seeking connection in the void. Check out GoAmerica.com and see if their offerings might fit your bill. We will probably sign up for their $60 per month service and report back on how well their "anywhere" service works.
Next week, some more news from the world of Dashboarding. Hope to hear from you soon!
San Diego, California
May 29, 2000