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One Coffee: Hold the WLAN

Is there really a business case for connectivity at the java joint?


August 1, 2003  


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As I write this, the sidewalk caf and patio season is upon us and I’ve been doing my darndest to get out of the office and meet colleagues in the wireless industry for a coffee or a pint.

When the talk turns to wireless local area networks (and it does, because I invariably ask for their thoughts on wireless LANs), there’s an interesting consensus building that WLANs are incredibly useful in some places, and a waste of time and technology in others.

I do not yet have a wireless LAN in my home office, but by the time this column goes to print I expect I will. My office window faces west, I don’t have air conditioning, and in the height of last summer’s heat ‘n’ humidity wave I learned what it feels like to be a tuna melt under the broiler.

Yet grabbing the laptop and heading for cooler parts of the house did little to improve my productivity because I was unplugged from my e-mail and the Web. Clearly, a WLAN would improve matters. (So would air conditioning, but a WLAN would be cheaper and easier to install.)

The coffee and pint set agree that WLANs provide some much needed flexibility when working at home. Wireless LANs make sense in other venues for similar reasons.

Offices:

In the office, being untethered can make it easier for colleagues to collaborate. Meetings can be held almost anywhere, and participants can benefit from connectivity to printers, servers, e-mail, the Web, and so on. Sales people, field service personnel, visitors from out of town and others who are rarely in the office do not need to find a place to plug in when they’re on site.

In fact, the physical layout of the office becomes much more flexible if one doesn’t have to worry about the location of computer connections.

Hotels:

Business people who travel a lot spend a lot of time in hotel rooms and making their stay comfortable and convenient is an important way to encourage repeat patronage. Broadband connections are becoming quite common in hotel rooms that cater to corporate types and the next logical step will be untethered connections: checking e-mail at those little desks is fine, but even in a hotel room people like to move around.

And if several people were travelling together, WLANs in hotels would provide the same types of benefits they do in offices.

Airports and train stations:

Any place where laptop/PDA-enabled travellers have to cool their jets is ripe for a wireless LAN. When you’re waiting for the boarding call, answering a few e-mails is a useful way to kill the time. But plugging in while juggling a laptop and your luggage is a painful experience.

These examples all work for two reasons.

First, the WLAN provider can bury the cost of providing the wireless service. Building owners can use WLAN connectivity as a selling point when encouraging corporate customers to become tenants, and bury the cost in the rent. Hotels can offer it to guests for “free” by bundling the service with the basic room rate. And wireless LAN access at airports or train stations could be offered as a privilege for those travelling on premium tickets.

Second, and this is really the most important, each of these scenarios involve users who are in a place where they might actually have a laptop with them, might actually want to turn it on and do some work, and might actually take advantage of a WLAN if it was offered to them at no apparent cost.

In my meetings so far this year with colleagues in the wireless industry, not one of us hauled our laptops to the java joint or the pub. This should come as no surprise, really since these are places people go to get away from work.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. When he’s not having a coffee or a pint, he can be reached at 416-878-7730 or tpmarshall@eol.ca.