Hotspots warming up to compete for mobile business


14 Aug 2006

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Today’s business travellers have tools at their disposal that were unimaginable a decade ago. Mobile networks are capable of increasingly fast transmission speeds but there has also been a proliferation of Wi-Fi.

The 802.11 standard allows wire-free connectivity over 200 ft and has become a ubiquitous feature on laptops. It is also supported by a growing number of ‘hotspots’, public places where it’s possible to connect to broadband speeds for accessing business networks.

Eirom has been particularly aggressive in rolling out an Irish service. “We have about 1,000 hotspots around the country,” says Eoin MacManus, head of business marketing at Eircom, “which gives us the most pervasive coverage.”

Sites include Dublin Airport, the most active site in the country, according to Eircom, and others in hotels, coffee shops and sports grounds.

While there is no shortage of hotspots there is an issue about how frequently they are used. A Gartner survey revealed that less than 25pc of business travellers are taking advantage of the technology because of an uncertainty over how to use the service.
MacManus agrees that there is still an education job to be done. “No one should underestimate the productivity and efficiency gains from utilising hotspots. And if you compare it to the 3G data card it is far and away the most cost-effective way of accessing the web.”

One of the challenges in selling the service is coming up with a workable billing method. “We have to make it convenient and easy for people to pay,” says McManus. Eircom broadband customers, for example, can pay as little as €10 per month for Wi-Fi access. There are also pay-as-you-go deals ranging from €3 for 30 minutes to seven days for €30.

The missing component in Eircom’s Wi-Fi armoury is roaming. BT claims that its Openzone customers have access to 30,000 hotspots globally through international partnerships. In Ireland prices start from €10 for 24 hours and go up to €60 for 30 days. Subscription deals are also available and BT will offer bespoke services for business customers on a case-by-case basis.
BT hotspots are available at business hotels (Ramada and Hilton chains), travel hubs (Cork International Airport) and coffee shops (Insomnia and O’Brien Sandwich Bars).

What irks the telco is that prime sites, like Dublin Airport, are the exclusive domain of a single operator. “There should be multiple offerings on big sites,” says Paul Convery, BT’s head of mobility. “It’s like cash machines. Years ago there was only one hole in the wall for one bank. Now one machine will work with multiple banks. It should be the same business model with
Wi-Fi.”

The key component for Wi-Fi is the device that makes the connection. The 802.11 standard is built into most laptops but there is still a job to be done in encouraging its use.

“Awareness of Wi-Fi still could be better,” says Greg Tierney, Dell’s client systems marketing manager. “We’re trying to make it easier. Some Dell notebooks now have a Wi-Fi switch on the side so you don’t need to boot it up to sniff out if there’s a signal.”
HP notebooks also do their bit to make it easier. “We have a Wi-Fi one-touch button above the keyboard. Press the button and it automatically detects any network in the environment, then pick the one you want,” says Kevin Nolan, category manager at HP. “It can be hard to configure to get on a network so we make it as user-friendly as possible to maximise productivity when users are away from the office.”

As well as sweetening the Wi-Fi experience, manufacturers are also working at extending the connectivity of their product. Dell and HP have partnered with Vodafone to embed 3G into some of their range, enabling the easier transmission of data over mobile networks.

Tierney identifies the Dell Latitude D400 as the lightest model weighing in at 1.3kg. “Improving technology has made it lighter, such as Intel’s dual core low-voltage processor. It’s smaller and lighter and gives a higher performance without eating up battery life.”

HP is using the same technology in its range. Nolan identifies the HP Compaq nc2400 as a state-of-the-art business notepad, pointing out that a widescreen display is now part of the feature set. “There is an advantage in terms of the amount of information you can fit on the screen, especially for spreadsheet users.”

Recognising possible pitfalls for travellers, both manufacturers offer three-year warranties whereby a broken laptop can be treated almost anywhere in the world. To reduce the damage possibilities, HP has a mobile data protection system. “It’s a sort of airbag for notebooks,” says Nolan.

Most laptops also come with Computrace installed, security and tracking software that locates the stolen laptop next time it goes online. The owner can then remotely delete data. “It is an important consideration,” says Tierney. “What concerns businesses when a laptop is stolen is not the hardware but the information on it.”

O2 plans Wi-Fi rollout

In 2003 O2 was among the first Irish telcos to roll out Wi-Fi hotspots when it invested €1.9m in 20 sites including Heuston Station and Bewleys Hotels.

Now the company has revisited its strategy and is about to go into a partnership with an established Irish Wi-Fi provider to extend its reach, details of which will be disclosed at a later stage, a spokesperson said.

“If you’re going to engage in Wi-Fi you can’t restrict yourself to 20 sites,” Gerry McQuaid, O2 commercial director, told siliconrepublic.com. “It has to be available on a widespread basis.

“It’s not core to O2 business so we have decided to partner, which now enables us to offer Wi-Fi across the country with 250 sites.”

McQuaid admits that lessons have been learned. “When we first got involved we weren’t really sure what to make of the technology but knew we needed to be involved to understand it.

“At the time the company devised a charging regime around one-hour and 24-hour scratch cards. But a customer who only used a minute of the hour, for example, would not get back the unused minutes. It was too expensive so now we’re changing the billing system.”

Customers will be asked to enter a username and password when logging on to an O2 site and the amount will come in on the bill for post-pay customers or will be deducted for pre-pay.

By Ian Campbell