Despite a predilection for triple-shot lattes, it wasn’t just caffeine that had me spending hours a day in coffee bars across America recently, shouting into my mobile phone above the din of the grinders. Mostly, it was the Wi-Fi connection.
For three months I’ve lived a salesman’s life away from my Munich home. I travel by single-engine airplane across America, pitching my company’s services to airport businesses. Contact with the office (and my wife and son) is through e-mail and mobile phone calls.
Every day I find the nearest Starbucks or Borders books, where a T-Mobile HotSpot provides a high-speed 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, Internet connection. I download dozens of e-mails and swap sales presentations with co-workers.
There are niftier alternatives to Wi-Fi, some argue, but I hate reading e-mail on my mobile phone’s tiny screen, and I refuse to click four times for an “s” or quibble with the phone’s dictionary over whether mañana is an English word. Nor will I spend $400 for a Blackberry device that does little more than e-mail.
Full-blown personal digital assistants permit me to open simple presentations and, with an added folding keyboard, type documents. But at their best, mobile data services in the United States merely double the dial-up speed. The average presentation is well over a megabyte; that can be a battery-sucking 20-minute download.
PDA’s like Hewlett-Packard’s iPAQ h5500 have integrated Wi-Fi but don’t connect to mobile networks without more than $300 in add-ons.
Most PDA-phone hybrid devices offered by U.S. mobile providers, like the Kyocera 7135, Samsung SPH-i330 and T-Mobile’s Pocket PC Phone, let you do e-mails and limited Web surfing, but they have few or no expansion capabilities.
Geeky friends say, “Just set your PDA’s Bluetooth to use your mobile phone as a modem.” Oh, good: a new device, dependent on an existing one, to provide a mediocre connection. With all this on my belt, I’ll look like Batman. Why is this all so clunky? Where is the single handheld device that lets me connect to e-mail and voice via mobile and high-speed Internet via Wi-Fi – for under $1,000?
While I’m at it, my device should, when connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot, let me make calls using voice over Internet protocol, or VOIP. Apart from the Wi-Fi fee and perhaps a service charge to the VOIP provider, the calls would basically be free.
Wi-Fi is here today, typically offering connection speeds faster than even the best 3G network will offer – when 3G gets here.
It’s not just me. Mobile professionals – sales people, journalists, investment bankers and other early-adopter types – all want this $1,000 dream device. We are a clear market segment, and we’re willing to pay.
Don’t tell me the technology isn’t here: Miami-based Calypso Wireless developed the C1250i Wi-Fi-enabled cellular phone and announced a deal for $500 million with China Telecom to begin delivering phones this year. If tiny Calypso can do it with a phone, can’t somebody do it with a PDA?
“We know that’s the right solution,” said Brant Jones, a marketing manager for the iPAQ pocket PC at Hewlett-Packard, “but we just can’t do it yet for the technically intolerant.”
Wi-Fi, with spotty coverage and the fact that there is no widely available way to roam between networks, is far from perfect. But Wi-Fi use is rising. Most new notebook PC’s and many new PDA’s have integrated Wi-Fi.
Increased demand for hotspots has already initiated a fundamental shift in how operators intend to provide Wi-Fi services. Big players like AT&T, British Telecom, Virgin, IBM, Vodafone and Intel are realizing that sharing infrastructure makes more sense than having each company build its own.
For example, T-Mobile HotSpots provides wireless Internet connections at more than 2,000 Starbucks locations. But their business model is a classic “walled garden.” To use it, you need a U.S. T-Mobile HotSpot account. A British T-Mobile account won’t work. That’s silly.
A better way of getting more people to use more hotspots is more democratic. “Neutral hosts” let multiple providers share the same hotspots. They install hotspots in retail stores, airports and train stations. They then go to operators and say: “We’ve got 5,000 hotspots in retail stores around the country. We’ll let you use them to give your customers access; they pay you, and you pay us a percentage of the take.”
So as an end user, you log in with your existing credentials rather than opening a new account. If you use BT Openworld for Internet access at home, you’ll use BT Openworld when you’re in Paddington Station in London.
It’s self-propagating, too: Once a neutral host has cut deals with several operators, it can walk into a supermarket chain and say, “We’ve got 4.5 million customers who want Internet access; we can bring them into your stores if you give us permission to set up a wireless network in each one.”
It’s an elegant solution to a big problem. “People don’t want different bills,” said Magnus Mcewen-King, chief executive of Broadreach Networks, a neutral host operating Wi-Fi hotspots for Virgin and BT Openworld. “They want one account spanning access methods – cellular, Internet and voice.”
“Neutral hosting shows greater promise than roaming to succeed in offering end users easy access to public Wi-Fi,” said Bjorn Thorngren in a report for the wireless investment firm BrainHeart Capital. Thorngren forecast that providers that used the walled-garden approach to Wi-Fi billing will not survive: “They will have to change strategy or vanish.”
Cometa Networks, a neutral host backed by Intel, IBM and AT&T, plans more than 20,000 hotspots across the United States by 2004. The company’s plan is to “sublet” to brand-name Internet service providers like AT&T and IBM. This approach should bring Wi-Fi coverage up to mainstream levels – within a five-minute walk or drive for most people.