You're sitting at your local coffee shop, and you realize that important file you were supposed to send before leaving the office is still sitting in your draft folder. Head back to the office? Not if you're in a Wi-Fi zone. The growth of high-speed Wi-Fi networks in public places such as coffeehouses and airports isn't new, but the fact that they're popping up in unlikely spots like gas stations, restaurants and hotel lobbies--places you wouldn't normally associate with having access to the Internet--means that conducting business on the road is getting easier for entrepreneurs and business travelers alike.

Even McDonald's is doing a test run of the service in its New York-area restaurants, and hotel chains Hilton, Marriott and Starwood are among those installing Wi-Fi networks in hotel lobbies. Commonly referred to as hotspots, the majority use 802.11b technology. There are now approximately 3,500 such hotspots in North America, with an additional 7,000 operating worldwide. Companies like Boingo, Cometa, T-Mobile and Wayport have deployed wireless networks and are currently offering service.

Next Step
Connecting from public spaces might sound dreamy, but it also begs the question of whether such a shared connection can be secure. Because the networks operate in "open" mode, any business transactions should be carried out using a VPN, which will encrypt your data as it travels back to your office. Personal transactions, such as online shopping, are secure as long as the Web site accessed has a secure socket layer. Log on to www.wi-fi.org for more information and a list of worldwide Wi-Fi locations.

Intel's release of its Centrino chip (see the Tech section in May 2003 Entrepreneur for more on Centrino)--which bundles the laptop processor with wireless technology--is expected to give hotspots and the use of wireless LANs an added boost since consumers won't have to purchase a separate PC card to connect wirelessly. "Anytime a big company gets behind a technology like this, that can really capture people's attention and give it a lot of momentum," says Dennis Eaton, chair of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit trade group devoted to certifying interoperability of wireless LAN products.

One of the goals of the Wi-Fi Alliance, comprised of the largest manufacturers of Wi-Fi products, is to develop a global brand for Wi-Fi accessibility. If they succeed, the idea of a "virtual office" would take on new meaning: Users would only need to look for the Wi-Fi logo--much like ATM users look for the Star and Cirrus symbols--to know that Internet access is just a stone's throw away.

So what are the impediments to hotspots' growth and acceptance? For one, there's no standard billing process. Some locations offer free access, while others are for-pay and require you to set up an account. And because service providers haven't developed the business relationships to make access on multiple networks using one account seamless among different providers, your account at your local Starbucks probably won't work with your account at McDonald's. With 60 to 100 service providers currently offering the service, having multiple accounts is just a reality.

But according to Eaton, the billing problems will work themselves out in the next few years as providers work out back-end business relationships. Eaton likens the current situation to early cell phone networks that were deployed by individual companies and which charged other companies' customers roaming fees. Until then, the convenience of having high-speed Internet access just about anywhere will temper the inconvenience of maintaining multiple accounts.

Cash In on Wi-Fi
Toshiba (in partnership with Accenture) is offering an opportunity for entrepreneurs to sell their "hotspot in a box" solution. Entrepreneurs can sell and maintain Toshiba wireless hardware in neighborhood businesses like cafes and convenience stores, and Toshiba provides service and end-user support.