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Muni Wi-Fi to fill in wireless access gaps for mobile professionals

City-wide Wi-Fi and an increasing number of wireless access venues are making it easier for road warriors to stay busy.

It's happening city-wide, airport-wide, in libraries, coffee shops, grocery stores and even at popular fast-food chains. Sometimes it's free, sometimes it's not.

Whatever the venue, Wi-Fi rollouts are coming down the pike at a furious rate, setting the stage for non-stop, coast-to-coast Internet access. And they bring even more promise to mobile professionals -- whose jobs depend on communication with co-workers and customers -- than to casual Internet junkies who thrive on reading e-mail and browsing the Web.

"Wi-Fi access on the road has become more than 'nice to have,'" said Geri Mitchell-Brown, chair of the Voice over Wi-Fi Marketing Task Group and Wi-Fi strategist for SpectraLink, which makes wireless telephony systems. "If it's not available, I'm really frustrated. That's how I keep up with my day, and I have an expectation that it's going to be offered in my hotel, airport, Starbucks … "

Internet access for road warriors such as Mitchell-Brown isn't new, but the fever-pitch surge in ubiquity is. Monthly Internet access plans are already offered by companies such as T-Mobile and Verizon, which are handy for mobile professionals who roam a predictable route. However, the service providers' hot spots have to be mapped out ahead of time and coverage isn't always available where the mobile pro is heading.

Some wireless access gaps are getting filled in by a spate of freebies, some unusual, that are popping up across the country. The public library in Seattle offers free Wi-Fi access. But then again, so does a popular east-coast grocery store chain, and it provides a sitting area where surfers can relax while downloading a PDF file. Even McDonald's has jumped into the game with some locations offering Wi-Fi access time with the purchase of a meal.

Of course, the for-profit contingent of these venues is angling for more customers with the lure of free wireless. Still, road warriors will take their Wi-Fi where they can get it, and the hunt for access is constantly on.

"My first option is free, and I look for it," Mitchell-Brown said. "From there I pay hourly or for twenty-four hours, and that better not cost more than $12 per day."

Filling in the wireless gaps even further is important for today's mobile pros who have grown accustomed to readily available Internet access and who are displeased when it's not available.

Bringing Wi-Fi ubiquity to the next level for mobile professionals is therefore city-wide Wi-Fi, where announcements for new rollouts are happening regularly. Casual users and city personnel such as fire, police and road crew are part of the plan for those serviced by these Wi-Fi rollouts. But business users are big winners as well because sitting in traffic will no longer prevent them from doing their jobs, and their hotspot access points will increase dramatically.

In California's pulsing Silicon Valley, for example, there is a project underway to provide Wi-Fi coverage over a massive 1,500 square-mile area. This super-Wi-Fi effort is laced with controversy because questions remain about how it will be funded and other local conflicts. But the region's abundant road warrior population stands to benefit once the project is complete.

"I have sales people who are mobile in the Silicon Valley, and that kind of approach for them is going to be fantastic," said Neil Sundstrom, vice president of worldwide sales with Trapeze Networks. His crew typically pays for a service plan and then drives to a location where it can be used, which can be time consuming and inconvenient.

"They are going to be able to pull off the side of the road and they are going to be able to download whatever they need," Sundstrom said. He spends between 33% and 50% of his time on the road working for Trapeze, a maker of wireless LAN equipment, which is being used at Manchester Airport to disseminate wireless services to internal employees while also providing wireless access to the public network for travelers, cafes, bookstores and other shops inside the airport.

Riviera Beach, Fla. is also on the list of cities going wireless. Riviera Beach's project, powered by Motorola's MOTOMESH multi-radio, mesh networking system, has an interesting twist because it was funded by drug-money seizures. In California, the city of Lompoc, with a population of only 46,000, launched a city-wide Wi-Fi network last month. In Arizona, Tempe is in the deployment and testing phase of what it calls a border-to-border wireless rollout.

Another planned rollout with a bit of controversy is Philadelphia, which is partnering with Earthlink to deploy and manage a 135-square-mile, city-wide wireless network. Like Silicon Valley, the protests revolve around how the project will be funded. San Francisco has a major deployment planned at the behest of its mayor who wants every San Franciscan to have access to free wireless Internet service. And New York City is hot on San Francisco's heals with muni Wi-Fi ideas of its own.

Many cities haven't yet nailed down fee structures or how they are funding their projects for that matter, and so questions about end-user costs, coverage, and how reliable these future networks will be remain unanswered. However, Tempe, where deployment has begun, has published prices ranging from $3.95 per hour to $29.95 per month for wireless access.

The thought of driving cross-country and being able to select from an increasing number of free, fee-based or quirky Wi-Fi options may be appealing. But there is virtually no sense of conformity in the various Wi-Fi rollouts that are already deployed or underway. Each deployment is its own entity.

Convenience is nice, but cost becomes a factor when users are forced to hop from one plan to the next on a daily basis. And as a business user, it's not very practical to spend too much time hunting down those freebie hot spots. The mobile professionals affected most by this market clutter are those who move between cities, states or even countries and are forced to cherry pick their venue and pay the more expensive hourly or daily rate. "An issue that I see when I go out there is a lack of continuity in the providers," according to Trapeze's Sundstrom, who frequently roams among countries in his job. "So I have to go to a provider here today and one there tomorrow, depending on country, and give out my credit card number, because there is no worldwide carrier."

What these users want is an arrangement similar to what is available with cellular service today. Cell users roam at will thanks to partnering agreements among carriers, a scenario that is expected to take hold in the Wi-Fi arena sooner rather than later.

"Things are getting more complicated and more expensive, but I think it's temporary," said Mitchell-Brown who predicts a shakeout that will result in roaming agreements among Wi-Fi providers within five years.

In the meantime, she is a big fan of the muni Wi-Fi trend, even if it means paying an hourly or daily rate for now. "I love the idea of city-wide networks. I would love to fly to Tempe and have one agreement and it doesn't matter if I'm in a hotel or in the back of a cab, at a Starbucks or at the airport."

Even airports, where business travelers absolutely expect to find wireless access to the Internet, market clutter exists. One pre-paid service may work while another one won't, forcing the out-of-luck users to pay hourly rates if they want to log on. And at Logan International airport in Boston, a battle has emerged between the airport, which offers a fee-based Wi-Fi service, and the airline lounges that offer the same service for free.

The good news is there is some evidence that provider cooperation can happen at the Wi-Fi level.

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport recently expanded its Wi-Fi network with technology from LGC Wireless, which will let subscribers of 3G services, such as EVDO from Verizon, gain fast data access from laptops and PDAs. The network also enables cellular coverage throughout the airport, regardless of carrier.

"What we've done is to provide an extension to a carrier's network," said John Spindler, vice president of marketing at LGC Wireless. "We've deployed a system that looks like a piece of the wireless carrier's network, and if you are a subscriber on that network then you will be able to log on."

Jeff Kelly contributed to this article.

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