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3. Wireless Connectivity

Wi-Fi networks will stretch the boundaries of the office, and productivity. But standards and roaming technology snags will have to be hammered out before pervasive computing is, well, pervasive.
Marie Leone, | US
October 7, 2002

Brief: For about $3.00, you can get a hot cup of Gold Coast blend coffee at a Denver Starbucks. For about the same price, you can use your laptop or PDA to tap into T-Mobile USA's Wi-Fi hot spot, right from your cushy chair at the coffeehouse.

Starbucks and T-Mobile have teamed up to prove that making a wireless Internet connection (monthly T-Mobile rates run about $50) is as smooth as a double latte—and as habit forming. What's more, there's a growing number of wireless service and equipment providers anxious to cut the ties that bind workers to their hardwire connections.

What Is It: Wi-Fi is a local area network (LAN) technology. It's short for wireless fidelity, another name for the IEEE interoperability standard 802.11b, which certifies that products and networks built to the standard will work together, regardless of the make or model. The standard is the brainchild of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), a group of equipment and software providers with an interest in guaranteeing interoperability of Wi-Fi products to promote Wi-Fi as the global wireless LAN standard.

From a practical standpoint, anyone with a laptop or PDA outfitted with a wireless network card can use the Wi-Fi network to download E-mail attachments, surf the Web, watch a live Webcast, or listen to streaming audio, as long as they are within 300 feet of a so-called "hot spot." The wireless network grants unprecedented mobility, the signal is stronger than a cell phone signal, and the Internet connection is 10 times as fast as a dial-up modem. So why isn't everybody doing it?

Skinny: Hot spots are relatively scarce, so far. Industry estimates put the count at 1,200 public hot spots across the country, mainly in airports, hotels, convention centers, cafes, and malls. There are another 15,000 private hot spots throughout the U.S., mostly in homes and offices. And while that's a start, it's not enough to make wireless computing as ubiquitous as, for instance, cell phone or pager use, which is the goal of most vendors.

Roaming issues are a problem, says Anthony Ambrose, director of marketing for Intel Corp.'s Communications Group. Once you wander outside the hot spot, the signal dies. Wi-Fi network providers—like T-Mobile, EarthLink, RadioFrame, and Boingo Wireless (reportedly Boingo owns half of the for-pay hot spots in the country)—are trying to fix that. But to build out the network it takes capital, which, for now, is in short supply.

For its part, Intel is integrating the Wi-Fi connectivity technology into its silicon. According to Ambrose, the chipmaker's big push over the next year is to sort out international Wi-Fi standards and embed Wi-Fi technology into the computing platform. He says the new 2003 notebook computers will carry the Wi-Fi technology-laced silicon.

Another big advance for Wi-Fi deployment is partnering. Ambrose contends that the market will see more Wi-Fi network players coupling with traditional wireless providers — like VoiceStream, for example — to cross-sell services. Business is heading to a world where the connection between wireless LAN and WAN (such as cell phone networks) technologies will be seamless, predicts Ambrose.

The seamless interaction will change business models, says Jon Prial, vice president of business development for IBM's Pervasive Computer Division. He says the wireless evolution is shaping up like this: Current wireless technology, that already provides payback through increased employee productivity, will give management the confidence to embrace new communications infrastructures — like Wi-Fi. The new fast, transparent infrastructure will help create a new class of smart devices, which will, in turn, drive the enterprise further out of the office, into new business models.

Prial says it's already happening. Witness vending machine operators that no longer replenish machines by dispatching trucks along standard routes. Instead, smart devices in the machines dispatch trucks based on whether the Twix and Snickers slots are full or empty.

Prial turns to Hurricane Andrew for another change in business models, this time for insurance claims processing. Armed with PDAs, insurance field inspectors sent damage reports back to headquarters while en route — facilitating claims processing and insurance payouts. Unfortunately, hurricane Lili may give claims inspectors a chance to show off next-generation technology.

For better or worse, the lines between home and work will blur, too, as access to information will be delivered via wireless LANs to devices in cars and homes. However, this makes a strong case for employees fighting for the right to telecommute.

Corporate efficiencies also will be delivered through interoperability, like Wi-Fi standards, which means IT programmers won't have to eat up time and money rewriting code to link information systems. Interoperability will drive management to take an agnostic view toward network service providers, says Prial, because how they are connected via commodity networks won't matter. If they are connected will matter.

ETA: Two years.