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Commentary: United takes off in the wireless race

Pervasive computing takes another step forward after United Airlines announces that it will install wireless Internet access in its lounges and waiting areas.

    Pervasive computing took another step forward when United Airlines announced yesterday that it will install wireless Internet access in its lounges and waiting areas.

    By 2002, Meta Group expects that

    See news story:
    United Airlines lands wireless Web at airports
    many hotels, conference centers and other travel facilities will offer wired and wireless high-speed data services, giving those chains at least a temporary competitive edge in the business travel market.

    Progress is finally being made to support the needs of traveling professionals, and we expect that wired and wireless local area network (LAN) connectivity will become more common in public places over time. But this progress will continue to be gradual instead of happening all at once.

    Business travelers should not expect wireless high-speed services to become common in public places, such as convention centers, for another three years. However, as United's announcement indicates, there will be limited availability in the next one to two years in some high-traffic airports.

    Wired Ethernet is also beginning to appear in hotel rooms, and we expect this will become more common--within 6 to 12 months in major business chains--than wireless access. Companies like Wayport, MobileStar, CAIS, SoftNet and Nokia are installing these services, while carriers such as Verizon Communications, AT&T and MCI are waiting in the wings.

    People pay about $10 a day if they want the service, or they can sign up for a monthly subscription with wireless providers. This costs about $40 to $50 per month, plus added charges for excess data.

    The danger in a monthly subscription is that unless travelers know that the hotels they visit all use the same service provider and have the service installed, they may get little use from the subscription.

    This is a typical catch-22: People are less than enthusiastic about signing up for a service that has spotty availability, and companies cannot attract subscribers--thereby limiting their revenues and infrastructure investment capability--until they are in many locations.

    In addition, people who choose to subscribe to wireless services should be careful to sign up with providers of industry-standard technologies, such as 802.11, because proprietary technologies available from some providers are not universal.

    Meanwhile, wireless technologies have an advantage in older hotels because little actual cabling is needed. However, hotels with modern phone systems can also "piggyback" Phoneline Network Adapter (PNA) technologies into the room without significant rewiring, albeit at slower speeds than wireless access (1 mbps vs. 11 mbps). We expect new construction to include standard Category 5 Ethernet wiring to each room.

    Many hotels are hesitant to install Ethernet service because of the "help desk" problem. The services provide 800 numbers to central help desks, but these help desks cannot answer questions such as, "Where is the Ethernet connection cable?" or "How do I configure my Ethernet card?" And often no one in the hotel has any idea how to help guests with an Ethernet connection. People who use these services must be prepared to be their own technicians, solving connection problems and configuring network adapters as necessary.

    The bottom line is that business travelers increasingly need high-speed connectivity. Given the rarity of wireless services on the ground, however, it is premature for companies to start equipping their mobile professionals with 802.11 cards unless the company uses wireless LANs internally. Companies should also examine whether each computer is equipped with an Ethernet card required for connection to wired in-room devices, because some models only have Ethernet connections available in the docking station.

    Business travelers should start requesting rooms in hotels that provide wired Ethernet connectivity. By showing their preference for those hotels, they will pressure the hotel industry to accelerate installation of Ethernet services and to specify in travel directories which hotels offer such services when travelers consider booking reservations.

    One last difficulty with hotel Ethernet systems is that the cables to connect guest's computers disappear from the rooms. Traveling professionals would be wise to pack their own Ethernet cable in their computer bags.

    META Group analysts Dale Kutnick, Jack Gold, William Zachmann and David Cearley contributed to this article.

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