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Working in a Wireless Wonderland


I'm currently sitting in my car dealership waiting for a service to be carried out. Luckily, being a journalist, I can work pretty much anywhere as long as I have a notebook computer with me. However the degree to which I can work is entirely dependant on whether I can gain access to the Internet in order to upload whatever I've written, or even just check my emails.

Over the last couple of years there must have been millions of pounds spent on marketing wireless networking. Intel alone has been trying to convince the world that with a Centrino based notebook you can connect to the Internet from anywhere. So, if I'm meant to believe that I can happily video conference halfway up Mount Everest, why can't I check my email when I'm at a car dealership in North London?

Now, I'm not going to sit here and criticise wireless networking because I actually believe that it's the single most important aspect of computing right now. I truly believe that everyone needs wireless networking - they just don't know that they need it. Once someone has enjoyed the ability to access networked services and the Internet without the need for wires, they'll never want to be without it.

No, it's not wireless networking as such that I'm criticising, it's the poor implementation of the technology that’s holding it back from becoming the widely adopted service that it should be.

Let's talk about wireless hotspots. Wireless hotspots are areas where you can connect to a wireless network and gain Internet access for web browsing or email usage. More and more wireless hotspots are appearing every day, but using them is a bit of a nightmare. The last time I was in Starbucks I turned on my HP iPAQ and found that there was a WiFi hotspot there. Upon connecting to it I found that it was a subscription service (T-Mobile to be precise) and if I wanted to use it I'd have to pay £5 for an hour of connection time. Now I’m all for free enterprise, but I found that pricing just unacceptable.

I can understand why companies like Starbucks don't want to have free and open WiFi hotspots, since some people would just loiter around outside and make use of it without purchasing anything from the actual establishment. However, wouldn't it be great if you got, say, 10 minutes of free connection time when you bought a cup of coffee? That would mean that you couldn't connect unless you bought something, but if you bought something you'd get enough time to download you're emails and have a quick check of your favourite website. It would be so easy to implement, the access code could even be printed on the cup - scanning the cup at point of purchase would give you 15 minutes to use the code before it expired, this would stop people collecting the cups and selling them.

Even a subscription service wouldn't be such a bad thing if it was implemented properly. The problem is that there are many different hotspot subscription services, and if you invest in one, how do you know that it will be the one that’s present when you need to be online? Let's say that you invest £50 into BT OpenZone so that you can keep in touch when you're on the move, but when you're trying to check your email in a coffee shop you find out that this particular establishment has a T-Mobile hotspot, so your investment was a waste of time. Of course you could make sure that you have an account for every hotspot service, but this will be very expensive and hardly practical.

What's needed is something similar to the roaming agreements between mobile phone service providers. If you happen to have a BT OpenZone account and you find yourself at a T-Mobile hotspot, you should still be able to use your BT OpenZone account and the two companies should sort the payment issues out between them, just like mobile phone carriers do. Even if you had to pay slightly more to use another company's hotspot, the ease of use and flexibility would be worth it for most people.

But ultimately, what I really want is to see is open WiFi hotspots that anyone can connect to for free. In 2002 I spent some time in Santa Fey in New Mexico. While I was there I noticed that the whole of the Old Town in Santa Fey was one big WiFi hotspot and it was completely free. The cost of this service was covered by all the restaurants, bars and coffee shops in the area, in an attempt to give their customers an extra service while in their establishments. The service was so comprehensive that one of the restaurants I ate in even offered to lend a WiFi PC Card to anyone who didn't have wireless functionality in their notebook.

I doubt that we'll see this kind of free wireless service in the UK anytime soon. Let's face it, consumers in America were enjoying free local phone calls for decades before any company in the UK offered such a service, and American consumers tend to demand better service and consequently get it.

I would still like to believe that I could sit almost anywhere in a major city and find a WiFi hotspot that I could connect to, and even if it wasn't free, it would be affordable and accessible no matter which service I happened to subscribe to.

This may seem like a bit of a pipe dream at the moment, but it wasn't that long ago that the thought of using your mobile phone anywhere in the world and on any network was pure fantasy. But whether that same flexibility will be rolled out to WiFi users is up to the service providers and how closely they want to work together. So come on guys, get it sorted - I know that I'm not the only one that wants to be working in a wireless wonderland.

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