Tech Essentials for the Business Traveler

Wireless Conundrum

When it comes to keeping in touch, Wi-Fi hot spots keep getting hotter, while the adoption of high-speed, wider-area wireless remains lukewarm. Still, experts believe the rollout of 3G services will continue fast and furious over the next 18 months.

"Generally speaking, the 2.5G data uptake has been marginal both in the consumer and enterprise space," says Ellen Daley, principal analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "But the carriers have been deploying 3G-type services."

Sprint PCS launched its Evolution-Data Optimized service in July in major airports and along well-trafficked business corridors, and expects to reach 150 million people in 60 metropolitan areas by early 2006. At the time of its launch, the carrier offered two different connection cards (necessary to access the network) that cost approximately $249 each; subscription pricing starts at $40 per month for 40MB. Sprint EV-DO mobile-phone handsets are expected in the fourth quarter.

Verizon Wireless offers EV-DO service in 30 to 35 markets and aims to cover half of the U.S. population by the end of the year. It has segmented its services into its BroadbandAccess service for business customers and V Cast, a multi-media service for consumers offering video, 3-D games and music. By mid-summer, some Verizon EV-DO customers were experiencing download speed bursts of 400Kbps to 700Kbps. In late July, the carrier shipped its PC 5740 wireless card, which you can use in a notebook to access Broadband-Access services. The card is backward-compatible: That is, if you travel outside an area where BroadbandAccess is available, the card will work on Verizon's existing 1xRTT National Access network. The card costs $49.99 after a mail-in rebate if you commit to a two-year contract.

Lewis Ward, senior research analyst for IDC's mobile and wireless communications program, says users need to upgrade their handsets to take true advantage of most next-generation services. Then there are the extra fees. For example, Verizon charges an extra $15 per month for V Cast, and certain types of content cost extra to download. If you're using 3G services via a laptop connection, you can expect to pay $60 to $80 per month for that privilege, he estimates.

True national availability won't be likely until 2008, Ward predicts. That means carriers have plenty of catching up to do, considering the ongoing expansion of T-Mobile HotSpot, billed as the most extensive commercial Wi-Fi network in the U.S. (including the ubiquitous Starbucks locations).

Deals announced earlier this year should eventually enable T-Mobile Hot-Spot customers to use their accounts at hotels including Doubletree, Hilton and Marriott, as well as 72 airports across the U.S. The pacts will bring T-Mobile's total number of Wi-Fi locations to 25,000 internationally. Existing T-Mobile cell phone customers can buy a subscription for $19.99 per month, but you can also buy bundles of usage, such as a $9 day pass.

Other Wi-Fi providers include Wayport, which covers more than 9,000 locations including 800 major hotels, plus McDonald's and Hertz sites; and Boingo Wireless, which also covers thousands of areas. For the lowdown on where to Wi-Fi from Boston to Los Angeles, go to "Wi-Fi Hot Spots" --we've rounded up some happening hot spots in eight major cities.

Wi-Fi speeds will continue to become more robust through the addition of features such as multiple-input, multiple-output technology. MIMO, slated to be part of the 802.11n standard that will eventually replace today's 802.11g, is designed to help enable data transmission rates of up to 108Mbps.

Last year, we reported on several experiments and projects that will bring Wi-Fi access to airplanes, trains and ferryboats. Since that time, United Airlines has received the nod from the Federal Aviation Administration to install Wi-Fi 802.11b/g equipment on its planes for in-flight use. The airline plans to install the technology along with its partner, Verizon Communications. At press time, the launch date depended on the results of the FCC's Air-to-Ground spectrum auction. That's because United needs to provide a link from the self-contained wireless network back to an internet access point on the ground .

Indeed, the need for deeper cooperation between wireless telecommunications carriers and Wi-Fi evangelists is something wireless experts think will become imperative over the next year. They believe an increasing number of users crave a single handset that combines Wi-Fi and GSM/GPRS cellular communications--both voice and data flavors. Such devices would enable Voice WLAN applications. That means a person could place calls or send data using whichever wireless network is available or most cost-effective depending on their situation, swapping back and forth between network types.

The cost of current devices combining Wi-Fi and cellular radios, such as the Siemens SX66 Pocket PC Phone or the HP iPAQ h6315, is about $550. That's in part because the microprocessors needed to support multiple modes are still pricey. Carriers also need to invest in technology to guarantee the seamless handoff of calls between different networks. Daley predicts it will take at least three years for the multimode technology to become mainstream: "Still, we're moving toward a tapestry of access methods that ultimately will be interoperable."

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This article was originally published in the November 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: I'm a Wanderer.

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