Public Wi-Fi percolates

Public Wi-Fi percolates

Wi-Fi surfing from a moving vehicle is still elusive in the US, but hot spots are nearly everywhere: in airports and hotels, burger joints and coffee bars--and the folks building them say to expect more wireless options soon.

Wi-Fi surfing from a moving vehicle is still elusive in the US, but hot spots are nearly everywhere: in airports and hotels, burger joints and coffee bars--and the folks building them say to expect more wireless options soon. Building more access points will nurture Wi-Fi usage, panelists agreed at the IWireless World conference in Los Angeles. Discussing Wi-Fi's progress and future were Maurice Marks, chief technical officer for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Network and Service Provider Business; Dave Hagan, president of wireless services provider Boingo Wireless Inc.; and Lovina McMurchy, director of wireless services for Starbucks Corp. The java giant has led retailers in implementing wireless broadband services in many of its coffee shops, and the service is becoming a trend.

To lure more wireless use, devices other than the predictable notebook computers, handhelds, and cell phones will soon be able to access the Internet, Hagan says. He predicts Apple Computer Inc.'s IPod music player will be among the next devices to add wireless capabilities.

"It's a natural," he says.

Hot Spots Pop Up

About 5000 hot spots are already operating across the United States, the panelists said. T-Mobile USA Inc. runs about half of them, including those at Starbucks sites. T-Mobile also provides Wi-Fi access at some 400 Borders bookstores and at dozens of Kinko's Inc. printing shops.

Boingo is the second largest Internet Wi-Fi service provider with between 2100 and 2200 installations, says Boingo's Hagan.

Airports are a natural crossroads for mobile access seekers. Dozens of U.S. air terminals provide hot spots where travelers can log on with notebooks and personal digital assistants to check e-mail and surf the Web. The number of hot spots is growing as more airport operators recognize the potential to sell wireless access to Net-hungry travelers, the panelists noted.

Also, many businesses are finding Wi-Fi an easy bonus service they can offer once they've installed a wireless infrastructure for their own use.

For example, Toronto Pearson International Airport added a public access channel on top of an existing Wi-Fi network. Employees use the WLAN to track baggage and keep tabs on airport equipment. Sheraton is taking the same tack in its hotels, selling guest access to an existing infrastructure.

"There are some real cost savings because they are piggybacking on the same system," Marks says. HP has helped some sites install those dual-purpose wireless Internet access points.

A retailer to watch, which has the wireless plumbing already in place, is Home Depot, Marks notes. The company installed a wireless net for its own use, and has recently opened it to suppliers and business partners. Perhaps shoppers could tap in next, the panelists suggest.

Other Benefits

Starbucks, a Wi-Fi pioneer, has found that wireless access encourages coffee sales. With 2251 wireless access points in its 6000-store U.S. chain, Starbucks has the country's largest hot spot network.

By year's end, 2700 Starbucks sites will offer wireless access, McMurchy says. Even some of its airport sites provide Wi-Fi through Internet partner T-Mobile.

McDonald's Corp. recently announced its own Wi-Fi program. It gives the burger-and-fries crowd--especially younger electronic gaming enthusiasts--wireless access under the Golden Arches.

Unlike McDonald's, Starbucks doesn't directly charge the wireless users. Users must subscribe to T-Mobile wireless service to access the hot spots.

The coffee company really doesn't mind "loitering" customers who buy one cup and then settle in at Starbucks to chat online, cruise the Web, do e-mail, or chat, McMurchy says. Starbucks contends that the service draws new customers and also creates brand loyalty.

The wireless nets help keep Starbucks busy during quieter hours. Most of the coffee shops' business occurs before 9 a.m., and 90 percent of those orders are for take-out. But 90 percent of the Wi-Fi users saunter in after 9 a.m., McMurchy says.

"It's driving customers into our stores, so we are okay with that," she adds. -- PC (US)

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