Audio Sizzles Over 802.11 WLANs

By Mark Walser

November 08, 2001

Audio content delivery is huge on the wired Net and analysts predict that it will play a pivotal role in the adoption of 802.11 in the home. This article examines one company's take on delivering wireless MP3 (Mpeg 3) over 802.11 networks.

Audio over the Internet has been one of the most used and successful applications ever seen online. Because of its success on the wired Internet, many believe that MP3 music delivery will be a key application driving adoption of 802.11b in the home market.

With the popularity of services like Napster and Internet Radio, users have clearly shown that they use the capability on the wired Internet. Outside of ring-tones in Japan and Europe, there has been a lot of talk but little activity in deploying wireless audio. The lack of greater enthusiasm has been attributed primarily to disparate wireless standards, and the lack of always-on, fast wireless coverage to quickly download large media files like MP3s. Additionally, infrastructure that makes the experience seamless for an end-user has been slow in coming. A user should not have to worry about whether they are connecting through wireless LAN, Bluetooth LAN, or Home RF. The infrastructure should automatically be able to "sense" the infrastructure and adjust the streaming of data accordingly.

802.11 and other wireless LAN technologies provide a perfect forum for users to try out and get acquainted with wireless services like MP3 delivery on their laptops, handhelds, and even phones. The WLAN's always-on, reliable coverage combined with the rapid downloads could go a long way towards helping consumers recognize the upside of using fast wireless technology, and could be a nice segue to get them to use fast wireless area networks (WANs) when they become ubiquitous.

Enabling WAN features on LAN
While there are technologies that can optimize data over multiple networks, Sensate Inc., out of Canada, is one of the few companies that have focused specifically on audio over broadband.

2nR-Musiker from Sensate is a vertical application based on AoIP, Sensate's wireless network application platform and middleware. AoIP allows wireless 802.11b local area networks to have features found in cellular wide area networks, such as client and services discovery, authentication, profiling, roaming, caching, QoS, and other features.

Sensate's Ripple technology delivers uninterrupted MP3 files to network devices, regardless of the network load. This core value proposition is the basis for a host of applications that can be transported to wireless LAN. Sensate's business model is to license this technology to hardware and software companies that can write, enable, and deploy various applications easily to 802.11b. They simply chose Internet audio to showcase one of the most compelling capabilities of this platform.

By enabling these services, like caching and authentication, Sensate eliminates the need for set-up, and adds buffering features in case of a momentary loss of coverage; all features end-users are accustomed to having in the WAN environment.

"2nR-Musiker enables one PC to become the central server for all your music needs. Our PC and WinCE player clients connect laptops, PDAs, and devices to the MP3 server in a seamless and transparent manner. Used with a content tool such as RealJukebox, 2nR-Musiker manages content, upload, download, and streaming to network devices in a simple and compelling way," stated Robin Dymond, founder and CEO of Sensate Inc. "With 2nR-Musiker, Sensate is delivering the in-demand next generation consumer entertainment application for the home network and consumer devices: Internet audio."

Convergence with telematics & video
Sensate's infrastructure is designed to extend the reach of in-home 802.11b to a user's vehicle by providing software that downloads the preferred music from their home PC to their car so that they can take their favorite music with them without having to bring along physical media like CDs. Sensate is working with a major car manufacturer to enable this, and it is hoped to be one of the key areas of future growth for 802.11b. Mr.Dymond also states "I think 802.11b combined with AoIP is a stronger play for the youth market than satellite radio - people can access much richer, more personalized content when they pull up to their house or drive through service stations."

When asked how 802.11 might conflict or butt heads with GPRS or other fast technologies in the WAN environment, Dymond opined that they would evolve in parallel because they would most likely be used for different things. I believe that he is correct in this assessment. With GPRS you may have the ability to download a video in your car, but it will be very expensive for the near-term future because of the expected pay-per-byte nature of customer billing. Rather, you would use GPRS to get fast snippets of data and messages, and 802.11 to access video content at a local wireless LAN hotspot.

How does Sensate plan to monetize this?
Sensate licenses the technology to resellers, who in turn receive an incremental value-add for their service or device. This does turn into a one-time charge for that reseller, and so ends the revenue stream. While Sensate has likely chosen the right model for its business, the larger issue of how the industry as a whole monetizes and gains traction is suddenly brought into glaring focus. In order for 802.11 to be more widely adopted, there must be applications and services that compel people to use it. But if the applications are unable to find enough traction and volume to monetize, then infrastructure and hardware (which is a one time expense) is the only viable way to make money. As it commoditizes, it becomes a loss leader, and then there is no way to make money except off the services provided.

Sensate's approach to its business model may be the way that most companies innovating in the wireless LAN arena execute successfully. They follow the old adage of "Don't try to make the market, let the big guys do it for you."

Summary
Dymond's observation is that MP3 is the largest single application driving consumer adoption of broadband. Never underestimate the power of kids nagging Dad about the slow download speeds and then co-opting the "school research" argument to get the folks to spring for ADSL. That same market force has been driving the adoption of 802.11b as consumers reach for shared broadband access solutions. Internet access is just the tip of the iceberg though, as WLANs can provide a platform for myriad products and services that extend both the Internet and the PC's functionality. Distributing content from the user's desktop to the car, bus, cellphone, or living room is the issue that Sensate is solving. Wireless audio stands out as a true example of the type of content that can help make 802.11 a truly widely used standard.



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