Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

New adventures in Wi-Fi

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday October 28, 2002

Sitting in the Pop! Tech conference in Camden, Maine, last week struggling to keep up with Stephen Wolfram, a PhD in theoretical physics, who was talking about the complexity of the universe, I noticed a man beside me busily tapping into his laptop. Now, given that this conference attracts a lot of technically savvy people, it wasn't unusual to see PCs propped open on many laps. But as I peered at my neighbour's screen, it became clear that he wasn't simply taking notes or catching up on his emails. Mr Laptop was blogging.

Blogging is personal publishing. It's the verb that describes writing a weblog, or putting what you think about something on the web. There are weblogs popping up all over the internet. Some are in the category of watching paint dry. But when there is something interesting to say, blogging is cool. And it is particularly powerful when it's real-time and "in the field".

This kind of plugless internet connection is only possible through a technology called Wi-Fi, also known as 802.11, which provides high-speed wireless internet access in discrete locations. So my blogging neighbour's insights were available as soon as they were web-posted, creating a real-time, second level of conversation at the conference, and making my pen and pad look a bit antiquated.

Blogging may be the new thing, but it's Wi-Fi that has the potential to cause a paradigm shift in how we access the internet. The web-connected cellular mobile phone may have to make room for the Wi-Fi-ed PC. Even in these sober, post-technology-bust times, Wi-Fi is causing a stir. Having begun in corporate offices, universities and factories, Wi-Fi is increasingly going commercial with "hot spots" turning on in coffee shops, hotels and airports.

Starbucks and mobile operator T-Mobile launched Wi-Fi in 1,200 US coffee shops in August with 800 more shops expected to be turned on by the end of the year. It costs users between $30 and $50 a month, depending on their usage. Meanwhile, based on its own predictions that 30m laptops could be equipped with Wi-Fi technology in the next three years, chip-maker Intel is developing its first wireless-specific semiconductor, which will include 802.11 wire less capability. Intel also plans to spend up to $150m in the next three years investing in other companies working on Wi-Fi.

With all this activity, hi-tech research firm In-Stat/MDR expects the Wi-Fi marketplace to expand from 2,000 locations in 2001 to 42,000 sites worldwide by 2006. The UK has been slower to take off with Wi-Fi. The government did not permit the relevant part of the radio spectrum used for Wi-Fi to be commercialised until this summer. This spectrum had been only for other public, unpaid uses like radio-controlled garage doors, microwave ovens and university networks. Taking advantage of this change, Starbucks and T-Mobile are offering a free-trial Wi-Fi service in two London coffee shops with plans to start charging for it later this year. BT is also looking to enter the Wi-Fi business in competition with its recently spun-off mobile arm, O2. And a company called Megabeam has a deal to set up Wi-Fi locations in UK railway stations. So far, Vodafone has been surprisingly quiet about Wi-Fi, perhaps worried that the ability to log on in a remote location could cut into potential revenues from its next generation cellular phones, in particular 3G.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, has decided that Wi-Fi is not a threat to its mobile business and may turn out to be complementary. At least one analyst agrees: "I think Wi-Fi will cause some minimal revenue attrition from 3G," says Richard Dineen, Ovum wireless research director, "but you wouldn't download a big file using your 3G phone because it would take too long. Wi-Fi should drive 3G by creating an appetite for wireless working away from home. People will use Wi-Fi when they're seated, but they will use their 3G phone when they get out of the Wi-Fi hot spots."

With no cost attached to the Wi-Fi spectrum, the cost of setting up Wi-Fi networks is certainly less than building a 3G network. But although coffee shops and airports are logical congregation points for people willing to pay for Wi-Fi, operators may struggle to find enough attractive locations to make the business model work. In terms of content, Wi-Fi networks will be an access method rather than a big driver of new forms of content. Wi-Fi hot spots are just more user-friendly for some activities. After all, mobile phones - permanently connected to the web - are still primarily voice devices with only a tiny screen.

It surely makes sense to check out a sports video clip or update your PowerPoint presentation with web-based information while sitting down having a latte. Starbucks and T-Mobile certainly think so. I wonder if that's worth blogging? Probably not.


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