HOME Technology 2003
Wi-Fi networks - a quiet revolution
120,000 hot spots worldwide by 2006

The ability to escape from the office or home to a local café without loosing your connection to the internet or your contact with friends or business associates is proving an attractive option as a growing number of New Zealanders discover WiFi.

WiFi, or wireless fidelity, which makes use of unlicensed radio spectrum to create internet hotspots, is a quiet revolution occurring as more people become their laptop or handheld computers can easily make a connection.

People are even setting up their own home networks with a wireless hub taking a fast internet connection and sharing it with devices around a home or office delivering speeds up to 6Mbit/sec. WiFi cards can be purchased for laptops, PDAs and PCs for under $200.

Around the world travelers, business people and individuals are making high use of hot spots in airport waiting areas and lounges, at café’s, bars, conference centres, libraries, universities and public locations.

According to Research firm IDC there are approximately 20,000 hotspots worldwide, and this is expected to grow sixfold by 2005 and it predicts wireless-enabled notebooks will represent 42 per cent of all mobile PC sales in 2003 and 95 per cent in 2006.

What’s that in your hand?

Hot spots are now beginning to spring up around New Zealand with operators in Wellington (Cafenet), Auckland, Christchurch and points between (Reach Wireless). However Luigi Cappel suspects 90 per cent of PDA users don’t realise what they’ve got in their hands, and even when buying new WiFi enabled devices are not aware of how and where they can use those them.

Mr Cappel, director of the New Zealand Smartphone and PDA Academy and author of the book Unleashing the Roadwarrior says people generally need educating about WiFi and personal area technology such as Bluetooth but most retail salespeople don’t understand the technology and aren’t much help.

While WiFi is starting to catch on with notebook users he says it’ll rapidly shift to PDAs such as Palm, Sony, HP’s Pocket PC or Casio once people become aware of the new hot spot networks. Most PDAs and many laptops are now Bluetooth enabled. Users of Bluetooth enabled devices can swap electronic business cards, collaborate on documents or activate remote printers or other devices within a 10 metre perimeter.

Mr Cappel says converged devices such as smartphones which incorporate computing capability are experiencing massive growth in sales and are rapidly taking over from stand-alone PDAs. "People want to be able to connect to the internet without having to use cables. While business is the prime catalyst people who have begun to receive emails on their cellphones soon want to do this for their personal use as well."

Smartphone and PDA access

Mr Cappel’s own smartphone has an organiser, email, web browsing and dedicated applications including Amazon’s book finder, BBC News, Google web search, PR news wire which allows him to scan the latest global press releases, Stock Manager which can check statistics at any international stock exchange, a seven day global weather forecast. He also has a PDA which can connect directly to his phone using Bluetooth.

Steve Simms, general manager of Reach Wireless says there are a couple of thousands user of his network so far and while now in the ‘early adopter’ phase it’s about to take off as more hot spots get established. "I’d say only about 30 per cent of computer users understand what it is or the hot spots where they can log in."

Reach began with five locations in Auckland in August, including a conference centre and cafes in the CBD and has rapidly expanded into Parnell and Ponsonby, including several Starbucks outlets.

Users typically buy ‘chunks of bandwidth’ for example $10 for 25Mb which has to be used within a 60 day period. Speeds up to 6Mbit/sec are typical and Mr Simms says one client below Starbucks in Parnell uses the connection to supply bandwidth to power his business.

Reach has expanded the network to include locations in Christchurch and a deal with BP has resulted in seven Café Zip outlets at BP stations between Auckland and Christchurch becoming hot spots. It’s expected this number will grow and that a number of deals with other major brands are also pending.

Pop-up to log in

Customers who have an 802.11b WiFi card embedded in or added to their laptop or PDA simply turn on their device and are presented with an automatic pop up screen which enables them to log on to the internet. New customers are prompted to purchase a voucher and enter relevant details to gain access.

Reach supplies technology kits to outlets and sets this up as a node on the Reach network so they become a hot spot. One account with Reach enables users to operate at any outlet on the network at speeds up to 6Mbit/sec with the outlet sharing revenues. Even if someone in a café next door was using the network the company that paid for the connection would still get the income.

According to computer chip maker Intel 71 per cent of road warriors – those who use their computer while traveling or away from the office - are convinced that Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) provides a competitive advantage. Ironically only one in 10 are using it although 90 per cent plan to in the future.

Being without internet access while on the road is seen as a major disadvantage as customers, co-workers and bosses have become used to prompt email responses.

While in the office most workers respond to emails within an hour on the road only 7 per cent maintain that response level – most wait for up to 48 hours and many have missed meetings, lost revenue, upset customers or even lost their jobs because they didn’t have timely access to the internet.

"Road warriors were the first consumers to make cell phones part of their daily business lives more than 20 years ago, and Wi-Fi is following a similar life cycle," says Sean Maloney, executive vice president, Intel Corporation.

"Right now, we see business travelers and technology buffs using Wi-Fi, but the technology will spread to general consumers as they become aware of the benefits of true mobile computing."

  Back2front      General Interest Webzine