You want wireless with those fries?

McDonalds continues to drop hints that it will, at some point, offer wireless hotspots in some of its New Zealand outlets.

McDonalds continues to drop hints that it will, at some point, offer wireless hotspots in some of its New Zealand outlets.

Information services manager Peter van Dyk says the company will continue to look at wireless opportunities. These could include “customer hotspots”, as well as unspecified wireless applications in connection with point-of-sale applications. McDonalds is already in the early stages of providing wireless networking for customers in some of its US and UK outlets.

Speaking to an audience of IT executives in Wellington, van Dyk says McDonalds put in its first wireless link in 1997, to save training staff carting courseware on floppy disks from the Auckland development site 30m across a car park to the training centre. The link ran at 0.5Mbit/s, van Dyk says.

In 1999, while McDonalds’ new head office was being built, three departments were “temporarily” moved downtown — as it turned out, the new building was only completed early this year. The company looked into wireless links.

“We realised there was a good business case for wireless,” says van Dyk, “not just in saving on the cost of cabling, but in remodelling costs.” Like many companies, McDonalds reorganises some of its office space every few months, and wireless saves much cable relaying. This expectation proved right within a few months of the installation, when just such a reorganisation occurred.

McDonalds sought help both from professional consultancies and suppliers and from wireless users. St Kentigern’s College, one of the largest wireless campuses in New Zealand, was of great assistance, van Dyk says.

Security was naturally a leading concern. As Leighton Philips from Intel, speaking earlier at the CIO magazine event, pointed out, basic wireless security is now available “out of the box” — though some users, van Dyk says, still do not turn it on. Having said that, van Dyk doesn’t regard the default security as adequate. McDonalds implemented a system of IPsec tunnels, using the US-originated Bluesocket gateway, through local agent Kalooma. This is combined with centralised authentication, MAC-addressing to authenticate the actual device, and physical restriction on unauthorised devices.

Bluesocket gave McDonalds the unexpected bonus of bandwidth management.

There is considerable rumour in the user community about the tendency of wireless links to lose bandwidth unexpectedly. In practice the company found bandwidth was sufficient for all needs except two users dealing with high-volume documentation. They were kept hard-wired.

Wireless printing was also found not to be cost-effective, largely because of the expensive network cards required.

Phone calls over the wireless network were implemented using an Ericsson DECT system and software from Pyxus. Voice-over-IP technology was not sufficiently mature at the time, says van Dyk.

Wireless phones provided the unexpected benefit of staff being more consistently available, as they carried their phones with them. The normal sequence of calling a landline, getting no reply, then calling a cellphone was avoided, and phone bills actually dropped.

Staffers could take their phones into a more secluded space when taking a call that needed privacy.

A few problems developed with Bluesocket on some workstations, including van Dyk’s own. This was traced to an incompatibility between drivers and Cisco wireless cards.

Wireless is a solution worth exploring, van Dyk says, though it obviously will not be the answer for everyone. “Security is a challenge, but it can be overcome.”

Van Dyk, who will shortly be leaving the company as it shrinks its IT staffing and pulls back a number of functions into Australia, agreed with a member of the audience that putting mobile power in the hands of staff is a way of moving decision-making out to the edge of the organisation where the action is.

One attendee said some would-be wireless implementers had ended up “struggling like hell” and expressed a need for a local user development centre in the style of Microsoft, Vodafone and Telecom.

Intel offers such a centre that can assist with wireless testbeds, said Philips.

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