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Wi-Fi Making Business on the Road Easier With hotspots, you never need to go too far out of your way to get business done.

By Gisela M. Pedroza

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're sitting at your local coffee shop, and you realizethat important file you were supposed to send before leavingthe office is still sitting in your draft folder. Head back to theoffice? Not if you're in a Wi-Fi zone. The growthof high-speed Wi-Fi networks in public places such ascoffeehouses and airports isn't new, but the fact thatthey're popping up in unlikely spots like gas stations,restaurants and hotel lobbies--places you wouldn't normallyassociate with having access to the Internet--means that conductingbusiness on the road is getting easier for entrepreneurs andbusiness travelers alike.

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

Next Step
Connecting from public spacesmight sound dreamy, but it also begs the question of whether such ashared connection can be secure. Because the networks operate in"open" mode, any business transactions should be carriedout using a VPN, which will encrypt your data as it travels back toyour office. Personal transactions, such as online shopping, aresecure 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 ofworldwide Wi-Fi locations.

Intel's release of its Centrino chip (see the Tech sectionin May 2003 Entrepreneur for more on Centrino)--whichbundles the laptop processor with wireless technology--is expectedto give hotspots and the use of wireless LANs an added boost sinceconsumers won't have to purchase a separate PC card to connectwirelessly. "Anytime a big company gets behind a technologylike this, that can really capture people's attention and giveit a lot of momentum," says Dennis Eaton, chair of theWi-Fi Alliance,a nonprofit trade group devoted to certifying interoperability ofwireless LAN products.

One of the goals of the Wi-Fi Alliance, comprised of the largestmanufacturers of Wi-Fi products, is to develop a global brand forWi-Fi accessibility. If they succeed, the idea of a "virtualoffice" would take on new meaning: Users would only need tolook for the Wi-Fi logo--much like ATM users look for the Star andCirrus symbols--to know that Internet access is just a stone'sthrow away.

So what are the impediments to hotspots' growth andacceptance? For one, there's no standard billing process. Somelocations offer free access, while others are for-pay and requireyou to set up an account. And because service providers haven'tdeveloped the business relationships to make access on multiplenetworks using one account seamless among different providers, youraccount at your local Starbucks probably won't work with youraccount at McDonald's. With 60 to 100 service providerscurrently offering the service, having multiple accounts is just areality.

But according to Eaton, the billing problems will workthemselves out in the next few years as providers work out back-endbusiness relationships. Eaton likens the current situation to earlycell phone networks that were deployed by individual companies andwhich charged other companies' customers roaming fees. Untilthen, the convenience of having high-speed Internet access justabout anywhere will temper the inconvenience of maintainingmultiple accounts.

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

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