Wi-Fi fails to connect with mobile users

For many business travelers, public Wi-Fi hot spots are proving to be not all that hot for making remote connections to the Internet and corporate systems.

IT managers such as Bob Heindel Jr., a network technician at Idaho Power Co. in Boise, said this week that they don't want to pay a full day's fee for a short Wi-Fi session in an airport lounge or coffee shop, nor do they want to fiddle around with their PCs to set up services from a variety of hot-spot vendors.

"I do use public hot spots when they're available and free," Heindel said, noting that Wi-Fi links are often provided at no cost at technology conferences. But, he added, he remains leery of Wi-Fi connections in general because of endpoint security concerns -- and he makes sure end users at Idaho Power are aware of those risks.

Not Worth the Hassle

Irving Tyler, CIO a US-basedt Quaker Chemical, said Wi-Fi is likely to remain little-used by his company's workers. Citing himself as an example, Tyler said it's too complicated to set up Wi-Fi links while waiting for flights, especially since he tries to spend as little time in airports as possible. He also has the advantage of using a BlackBerry handheld from Research In Motion to quickly check his e-mail and send short responses.

"I'm not going to open up my PC, find the Wi-Fi connection and then start the work unless I'm there for some time," Tyler said. He added that he would have to locate a power outlet for an extended Wi-Fi session, "which isn't easy."

Tyler said Wi-Fi isn't a good value unless a company hires a service provider that sets up connections with thousands of hot-spot vendors for easy billing and connectivity.

The comments of Heindel and Tyler back up poll results released this week by Gartner, which early this year surveyed 2,000 business travelers in the US and the UK about Internet and e-mail access issues. Only 25 percent of the U.S. respondents and 17 percent of those from the UK said they're taking advantage of Wi-Fi hot spots, according to Gartner.

Ken Dulaney, a Gartner analyst who was involved in conducting the survey, described the search for free Wi-Fi connections by business travelers as "the great adult Easter egg hunt."

"Wi-Fi is by no means dead," Dulaney said. But, he added, Wi-Fi vendors need to figure out long-term subscription models that users can tap into more easily. "Because billing systems for Wi-Fi are so fragmented and the coverage [is] so unpredictable, most users pay as you go," he said.

Other Options

Like other IT managers, Heindel is investigating alternatives to Wi-Fi, such as third-generation wireless broadband access services that some network operators offer via a laptop card. Idaho Power is in the midst of evaluating wireless access options for up to 200 field workers and plans to weigh the relative costs of 3G services and satellite communications links, Heindel said.

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Research, said a user who travels almost constantly might be able to string together reliable Wi-Fi services if he has subscriptions with several vendors. Otherwise, it makes little sense to pay US$10 for 24 hours' worth of access -- a typical price -- if you expect to log on for only an hour, he said.

Kerravala uses BroadbandAccess, a wireless service from Verizon Wireless that costs him US$80 a month. Verizon is now offering BroadbandAccess for US$60 a month with the purchase of a US$100 laptop card. Kerravala said the service is reliable but slows somewhat during peak usage periods.

However, he added that he would prefer to use Wi-Fi if he could buy a single subscription that provided coverage at all hot spots -- similar to the way roaming works on mobile phones.

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