Wi-Fi Gets Real

With big tech vendors planning nationwide coverage, high-speed wireless access to the Web is almost here
When the tech boom went bust, most business-technology executives wrote off the Wireless Web as a fantasy. Well, the dream of giving employees high-speed access to the Internet and company applications from airports, cafes, and conference rooms lives again, and this time it may become reality. The driving force: major investments by three technology powerhouses aimed at providing nationwide access to wireless LANs based on the 802.11 standard, or Wireless Fidelity technology.

AT&T, IBM, and Intel, along with venture-capital firms Apax Partners and 3i, last week disclosed plans to form Cometa Networks, which will build during the next two years 20,000 Wi-Fi service hot spots, public locations that Cometa outfits with wireless transmitters and receivers. Cometa will sell wholesale wireless broadband access to communications service providers, which in turn will sell the 11-Mbps service to businesses and consumers.

Intel will provide Wi-Fi gear, IBM will install the sites and provide back-office support, and AT&T will offer its network infrastructure and management. "We'll provide a highly reliable network with a national footprint and the security that enterprises require," Cometa chairman Theodore Schell says. "One of these days, we'll look back and wonder how we did without this."

The time may be ripe. Nearly 25% of the U.S. workforce -- 40 million people -- are considered mobile workers, according to research firm Yankee Group. Some of them already, or soon will, access the Internet from public Wi-Fi hot spots via service providers such as Boingo, SiriComm, T-Mobile USA, and Wayport. Starbucks Corp. offers Wi-Fi service in nearly 2,000 coffee shops, and Borders Group plans to deploy the technology in its bookstores nationwide starting next month. Last month, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines jointly signed on with T-Mobile USA to install the technology in about 100 airport clubs and lounges.

To date, businesses have been slow to accept Wi-Fi because of a lack of 802.11-enabled devices and concerns about widespread access. For example, United "found that many business travelers were willing to pay a monthly fee similar to the fee they pay for at-home Internet service, but they needed to get it seamlessly in every airport lounge," says Todd Cress, business-development manager for UAL Loyalty Service. T-Mobile is paying for the equipment that will be installed in the airports and will sell the service.

Wi-Fi guy. Photo courtesy of Photonica.

More Wi-Fi hot spots will help mobile workers stay connected.
FedEx Corp. has been using Wi-Fi for two years at its airport hubs and ramps to quickly sort 3.5 million packages each night, says Ken Pasley, director of wireless mobile architecture. FedEx also has Wi-Fi in its offices, letting people move around buildings with their laptops. The public wireless LAN services are worth looking at, Pasley says. "Our salesforce is all over the country, and we're trying to find the most convenient location for them to communicate. It could be at a FedEx location or it could be a Starbucks."

John Aleman, senior director of applications strategies and development at Ryder Inc., says Wi-Fi's usefulness to the company will grow as it's more widely deployed, especially at truck stops. "The extent to which that kind of infrastructure is rolled out and is cost-effective, we can only benefit," Aleman says. The transportation and logistics company already uses cellular and other wireless-data technologies to communicate with workers.

Cellular providers such as AT&T Wireless, Sprint, and Verizon have spent billions of dollars on wireless packet-data networks, using standards such as CDMA 1X and General Packet Radio Service. But these networks are too slow for some of the applications Wi-Fi service providers envision, such as letting service reps access wiring diagrams to repair machines in the field. Speeds top out at 100 Kbps and usage costs are high -- unlimited usage runs about $100 a month, compared with $50 to $75 a month for early Wi-Fi offerings. "In the next five years, we'll all be using Wi-Fi," predicts Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group. "It will be as big as cellular in terms of number of subscribers."

However, Wi-Fi coverage remains spotty, and analysts say some business users will opt to use both Wi-Fi and cellular services. Verizon, the nation's largest local phone company, operates a nationwide CDMA 1X network and has begun selling Wi-Fi to small businesses in Boston.

Of course, vendors and service providers in the past have spent lots of money on products and services that failed. But the backing of major tech vendors means Wi-Fi has a chance to become an everyday tool for an increasingly mobile workforce.

Photo courtesy of Photonica

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