• United States



by Barry Mason

Public Wireless Access: Wait and See or Jump Right In?

Sep 26, 200310 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

The prospect of universally available public access wireless networks is receiving significant recent attention from both the press and IT managers. The idea that consumers and corporate customers can access the Internet and e-mail from nearly any public space is indeed alluring. But it is far from today’s reality of spotty service from a baffling array of vendors in a limited number of locations. The question on many IT managers’ minds is whether or not it is worthwhile to equip employees with wireless-enabled devices so that they can theoretically be more productive away from the office.

The two most popular wireless technologies now are Wi-Fi and third-generation (3G) cell phone data networks. Currently, there are no clear answers about which service is better, though the ubiquity and rapidly falling price of Wi-Fi make it a more obvious choice to reach a positive ROI.

Wi-Fi: Speedy but Highly Localized

Because of the highly localized nature of Wi-Fi signals, service tends to be limited to the immediate area surrounding a Wi-Fi hotspot. Even the largest hotspot service providers, such as Boingo and T-Mobile, provide little more than an aggregated square mile or two of coverage nationwide. Therefore, it is important to consider what locations users will be connecting from because each service provider has exclusive agreements with particular airports, restaurants, and hotels. Some companies may wish to work with a wireless service aggregator to maximize usable coverage areas.

Wi-Fi ROI Pros

The following make Wi-Fi a good choice:

  • Wi-Fi’s standard architecture, ease of use, and high speed are essential for nontechnical personnel to be able to connect without making costly support calls to the corporate IT department.
  • Wi-Fi’s increasing ubiquity means that users can connect from both remote locations and their home networks, helping to increase ROI on a wireless device investment.
  • Flat-rate service plans allow users to work without worrying about reaching an allocated limit of kilobytes per month.

Wi-Fi ROI Cons

On the negative side for Wi-Fi as a data network are the following:

  • To approximate a large coverage area, users need to sign up with multiple service providers with multiple user names and passwords, which adds complexity, decreasing the chance that users will regularly log on and reap the benefits of the service. Wireless aggregators can help to alleviate this problem, but their services are pricey.
  • Wi-Fi is inherently insecure, forcing companies to install security software, which adds to the cost and complexity of a wireless deployment, and thus negatively affects ROI. However, such software is critical if business information is being transmitted on public wireless networks. Vendors such as Senforce provide software to enforce location-based security policies.

Wi-Fi Options

Companies that are looking to equip employees with Wi-Fi-enabled devices have a few options to consider:

  • Wi-Fi handhelds. Products such as Palm’s Tungsten C and HP’s iPaq H5550 feature built-in 802.11b antennas that can connect to public Wi-Fi networks. Using built-in mini Web browsers allows users to connect to the Internet and corporate portals. Built-in e-mail allows connections to most popular mail servers. Handhelds are a good choice because of their portability, low cost, and ease of use, all of which can lead to a positive ROI. However, they are easily lost, stolen, or broken, so data security is a top concern and companies need to be sure to include security software on all mobile devices. Also, handhelds’ limited screen sizes can sometimes make the Web experience challenging, though current devices are greatly improved in this area.
  • Wi-Fi-enabled notebooks. Most modern laptop computers contain built-in Wi-Fi capabilities. Though laptops are far more expensive than handhelds, they can make up for that higher cost by allowing mobile users to be more productive than they would be with handhelds. The same security concerns mentioned for handhelds apply here as well.

3G Cell Phone Networks: Nationwide but Expensive

The other major option facing companies is cell phone data networks. This method of wireless connectivity uses so-called 3G digital cell phone technology to provide wireless data services many times faster than dial-up but significantly slower than Wi-Fi. 3G cell phone networks are different from Wi-Fi networks in that they are not localized but rather are part of the nearly nationwide cell phone voice network. Thus, where Wi-Fi access is spotty, concentrated in hotels and restaurants, 3G data networks can be accessed almost anywhere a cell phone works.

3G ROI Pros

On the plus side for 3G cell phone data networks are the following:

  • Near nationwide coverage allows users to access the network from practically any location in a metropolitan area. Greater ease of access can help lead to higher ROI.
  • Because the networks are nationwide, companies do not need to sign up with multiple service providers as is necessary with Wi-Fi, decreasing billing complexity.

3G ROI Cons

Some of the negative aspects of 3G are as follows:

  • Cell phone network data access is far more expensive than access with Wi-Fi networks, which are increasingly being offered as a free public service.
  • Speed is generally lower than with Wi-Fi.
  • Most plans charge on a per-minute or per-kilobyte basis, which forces users to be cognizant of the amount of data they are downloading. This practice leads to higher costs and less usage, both of which negatively affect ROI.

3G Options

Companies that are looking to equip employees with 3G-enabled devices have a few options to consider:

  • 3G-equipped handhelds. Handheld devices, such as the Palm Tungsten W, feature built-in 3G network connectivity and can work as both phones and PDAs. They also contain built-in Web browsers and e-mail programs. These devices work in much the same way as Wi-Fi-equipped handhelds, with the major difference being that they have an always-on data connection to the cell phone network.
  • Cell phone network cards for laptops. Most of the major cell phone carriers sell network cards for laptops. These plug into a laptop’s PC slot just like any other peripheral, allowing the laptop to establish a data connection with the carrier’s cell phone network.
  • Smart phones. Some vendors have introduced hybrid devices, such as T-Mobile’s Sidekick, that bridge the gap between cell phones and handhelds. These devices typically feature a swiveling display and mini keyboard along with a nearly full-featured Web browser and e-mail client. Some of these devices are aimed at consumers, but companies can expect to see enterprise-oriented smart phones in the near future. Their small size and relatively low cost make them a good choice for employees who need simple e-mail and Web access.
  • Internet-enabled cell phones. Probably the least viable choice for mobile data connectivity is mini-Web browsers built into 3G cell phones. Given the small size of most cell phone screens and the lack of a full-size keyboard, cell phones are not ideal devices for anything but the most basic Web surfing.

Maximizing Wireless ROI

The low-hanging fruits of wireless applications are specialized, custom software packages aimed at particular vertical market segments, such as handheld diagnostics software for field mechanics or mobile medical databases for healthcare workers. These applications undoubtedly provide ROI potential because of their specialized nature. Beyond these custom applications, however, is there value in giving employees access to offsite wireless networks?

The answer depends on the type of employee. Because different employee types can benefit to varying degrees from wireless access, rather than handing out equipment on an ad hoc basis, companies should give wireless devices to employees in roles that are suited for netting a positive ROI on wireless access. They include:

  • Salespeople. Because salespeople are often offsite and are most likely to use free time productively, they are the natural first choice for wireless access. Salespeople can use wireless devices to meet with clients in neutral settings such as hotels or restaurants. They can also remotely read and write e-mail and look up sales and inventory information on a company portal. Salespeople’s natural tendency to use free time productively can help them reach a positive ROI on wireless access.
  • Offsite customer service personnel. Support employees who travel to customer sites also can help reach a positive ROI for wireless devices. Giving support workers the ability to remotely download service manuals or technical documents can help increase their productivity, and giving field personnel assignments wirelessly helps them spend less time calling into headquarters.
  • High-level executives. Because many high-level executives spend significant portions of their time traveling, they can benefit from wireless access. Having access to e-mail and critical real-time business metrics can help make an executive’s rare downtime more productive.
  • Traveling IT personnel. IT employees who travel to remote sites can also benefit from having mobile access to corporate data. One method to ensure a positive ROI is to enable mobile support personnel to remotely assess and configure corporate IT systems. For example, Sonic Mobility’s sonicadmin allows workers to remotely manage Microsoft Exchange and Active Directory servers as well as establish VT100 emulation sessions.

To maximize the ROI on wireless access, organizations must also consider what sort of information to provide to mobile users. Remote e-mail access is the most common application because it is easy and inexpensive to deploy and because most employees can take advantage of it to increase productivity outside the office.

In addition, making the company’s enterprise portal available to remote users can help to ensure a positive ROI. Because they are naturally designed to repurpose corporate application information for the Web, portals are ideal for presenting information to users who are connecting wirelessly. Companies that are already deploying an enterprise portal will need to spend only a small incremental amount (if anything) to make it available to wireless users.

Another option is a specialized software architecture designed to send corporate data to mobile users. One example of this approach is JP Mobile’s SureWave Enterprise Server, which allows companies to manage corporate data synchronization from a common platform.


Mobile wireless connectivity options, as they stand today, are fairly limited and are part of a rapidly evolving market. In a year’s time, the idea of paying for public Wi-Fi access may be obsolete. Indeed, it is already becoming clear that the public-access Wi-Fi business model is most likely not viable over the long term, especially as cities, towns, and chambers of commerce begin to deploy free networks in densely populated commercial areas.

Likewise, cell phone carriers may introduce lower-cost unlimited data access plans with higher speeds than are currently available. Most likely, however, vendors will begin introducing hybrid wireless devices with technology to connect to both Wi-Fi and 3G networks. The potential combination of ease of use, high speed, and nationwide availability will allow companies to more easily realize a positive ROI. With this technology just over the horizon, companies should make sure to minimize risk by not agreeing to long-term, inflexible service provider contracts.

This is not to say that companies cannot reach a positive ROI from current wireless technologies. If a company identifies specific work roles and applications that are well suited for mobile access, it can make wireless access work. However, those without a pressing need to equip mobile workforces should take a wait-and-see approach until the public wireless access market matures.