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Commentary: Getting connected with Wi-Fi

Experimenting on a limited basis with Wi-Fi access services could yield a strong potential benefit, in terms of increased productivity and even revenue generation.

Commentary: Getting connected with Wi-Fi
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET News.com
October 16, 2003, 3:00PM PT

By Brownlee Thomas, director, Forrester Research

What should information technology planners and telecom service buyers do about new wireless and mobile telecom services? Experimenting on a limited basis with Wi-Fi access services could yield a strong potential benefit, in terms of increased productivity and even revenue generation.

Companies should not hesitate to make these services available to their employees on a limited basis, assuming that adequate security measures have been taken to protect corporate information. By doing this, they will gain Wi-Fi experience and will be able to better predict demand and IT support needs. We assume that as these services become more widely available, demand will grow very quickly within the enterprise.

Pricing and coverage remain the main obstacles to broad enterprise adoption. It will be critical that IT administrators understand the cost elements that are associated with supporting secure remote access to corporate data via wireless access, along with usage-based versus volume-based multiuser pooling. They should also familiarize themselves with where users are most likely to want to use these services in order to fairly assess their value in terms of improved productivity and revenue generation.

Similar to what they experienced with cellular phone service adoption not so many years ago, many companies are confused about who should be allowed to use these services to access corporate e-mail, Web-based applications or corporate virtual private networks. They don't understand when or why they should pay for such services. The best way to make these services available widely within an organization is to begin small--with a pilot that involves 10 to 20 enthusiasts and must-have personnel such as executives who need near-constant accessibility.

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A growing number of fixed-line network operators and mobile carriers are partnering with traffic aggregators and others to offer Wi-Fi roaming access to their customers. The same players also are partnering with airport authorities to increase hot-spot coverage in major airports. Major international airlines are starting to install Boeing's Connexion airborne wireless local area network (WLAN) systems, which have been in trials for three years, in a growing number of long-haul aircraft, despite the close to $1 million price tag per aircraft.

The aim is to allow executive class--and in some cases even economy class--travelers the option of e-mail access and a limited amount of Web content that is cached on the onboard server and updated at 15-minute or 30-minute intervals.

Railway companies like GNER in the United Kingdom are beginning to equip their rail cars with Wi-Fi systems in order to offer Internet access to passengers, while others, such as VIA Rail Canada, have partnered with telecommunications operators to offer WLAN connectivity onboard some intercity trains. These systems use in-coach 802.11 WLAN systems, combined with 2.5G terrestrial mobile and satellite Internet connectivity.

Telecom Italia Mobile recently announced a new service for mobile customers who travel on the Costa Fortuna, the largest Italian passenger cruise ship, starting in November. Passengers will be able to receive calls, and send and receive short message service and multimedia messaging service messages on their personal data assistants and cell phones at a cost 77 percent lower than maritime satellite.

Wheat International Communications is a niche provider of ship-to-shore connectivity, called TeleSea Wireless Services, to floating casinos and private yachts. This unique coastal Wi-Fi service reaches 30 miles offshore and costs $7,500 to install and $500 per month for high-speed shared access. Wheat has also announced a satellite-based mid-ocean WLAN service for military and commercial fleets that initially uses SES Americom satellites that have footprints from the Caribbean to the mid-Pacific.

One-off setup costs for this managed service will be much higher--$50,000 for the hub system and $7,500 for each other ship in the fleet. But the shared 512-kilobits-per-second service is provided at a monthly rate of $1,149 for unlimited use. Future SES satellites will extend service to the Atlantic, Mediterranean and other parts of the Pacific and offer Internet Protocol voice and video as well as intranet and Internet connectivity. These services will cost substantially more to set up and use, but they will cost dramatically less than traditional maritime services Inmarsat and others currently use.

IT departments should experiment with new technologies in a controlled environment such as offering frequently traveling executives an opportunity to use the services on a limited basis. Additionally, since a subscription to one Wi-Fi service doesn't automatically allow access to others, employees also should be surveyed to determine which venues are most often used (airport lounges, cafes, etc.) and then select a service provider that offers hot spots in those selected venues.

Alternatively, a pilot could be done with one of the company's mobile carriers offering Wi-Fi to match coverage against demand and better understand the cost implications of a wider rollout.

Major mobile carriers in most countries are partnering for hot spot aggregation services, making it likely that there will be considerably more choice--and with it, competitive pricing plans--going forward.

As these services become more widely available--such as moving beyond airport executive lounges to in-flight services, first-class train compartments and seaside marinas, IT departments should be careful to understand the cost elements--connection fees (per session or monthly per user), per-minute to download and upload charges or per megabyte volume-based charges. They should also educate users about costs that are associated with these services. As companies add more users, they should push for shared-use plans similar to those available for mobile voice services.

© 2003, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.