Australia's minister for communications is investigating the possibility of using wireless technology as a solution to the 'last mile' problem. But the UK has ruled out this option.

Local loop unbundling has caused havoc in the UK, as well as in Australia, but things are improving. In the UK, BT has now opened up the so-called 'last mile' to competitors through fixed line leasing schemes and finally reduced its prices.

But there are inherent security problems with wireless networking which rule it out as a viable answer to the 'last mile' problem, according to researchers at AT&T Labs in Cambridge. The current IEEE 802.11 international wireless standard cannot be deployed on a large scale, they say.

"Basically you need a certain number of channels for the frequencies not to interfere with each other," said Quentin Stafford-Fraser, research scientist at AT&T Labs. "802.11 has about four channels; with such a limited number of channels, areas of coverage overlap. It can still be made to work, but not as successfully."

There are also worries over security. Hackers can tap into transmissions more easily without having to know the origin of the message.

"You could sit outside in a van and just tap into a wireless network, but most wireless networks nowadays do have their own encryption built in," said Stafford-Fraser.

Encrypting and decrypting personal data, Stafford-Fraser said, would not slow the network down "so as you would notice". In fact the only time the user would have a problem would be when downloading video, simply because it would not run so smoothly.

Security firm RSA has created 'Fast Packet Keying' which gives each packet of data its own encryption key, thereby making it harder to sniff. But problems are often caused by the user's inability to turn on encryption keys before sending messages — RSA itself admits, "this security isn't enough on its own".

The government has also ruled out using IEEE 802.11 as a 'last mile' option.

"Most people want to work on a fixed-line standard, not wireless. Wireless networks at the moment cannot cope with a large-scale rollout," said a spokesman at the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry).

There are, of course, benefits with wireless networks — they are cheap and easy to set up and remove the need for expensive and unsightly cables, but this is not enough to replace fixed lines.

"It's perfect for its niche market, but not for everyone," said Stafford-Fraser.