27 April 2010

Wi-Fi Wherever You Go!!

I recently wrote an article for this site about the differences between 3G and 4G and what those differences would mean for the consumer. Apparently someone at Sprint read the piece, because soon after it was published, they emailed me to see if I would like to “test drive” their Overdrive 3G/4G unit.

I was behind the steering wheel at the time and asked my daughter to text back, “Yes, of course I would.”

The reason was twofold. First, the Overdrive connects any mobile phone or laptop to a Sprint 3G or 4G connection. The Sprint 4G network is limited to select cities at the moment, but the Overdrive also connects to Sprint’s 3G network, which is available nationwide.

Secondly, the Overdrive device creates a Wi-Fi hot spot capable of supporting a total of five connections. In order to use the Overdrive device, which is about the size of a square drink coaster, you must purchase a data plan with Sprint, but you don’t need a Sprint mobile account or phone to access the 3G/4G offering.

My 14-year-old daughter immediately understood the importance of such a device. “You mean I can use my computer in the car and do everything I do at home?” she asked.

“Yes.” Suddenly I realized that in addition to ignoring me in the house, she would be able to ignore me in the car.

For optimal omission, I suggested that we drive through 4G territory, which is exactly what we did to test this device.

Sprint presently has 4G service deployed across Baltimore and Philadelphia and has plans to extend this coverage to Washington D.C. and New York City by the end of 2010.

Our trip began just outside of Baltimore. I placed the device on my dashboard, turned it on and then connected to it as one would connect to any Wi-Fi device. We picked up 4G almost immediately. I should point out that my daughter used her laptop and I used my iPhone. And no, I wasn’t looking at my iPhone while driving. Instead, I queued up a video and several podcasts for download and then let the Overdrive and iPhone do their thing while I drove.

Users of an iPhone already know that Apple does not permit you to download a file larger than 19MB using the AT&T 3G network. But the iPhone recognizes the Overdrive as a Wi-Fi hot spot and so sidesteps any file size limitations. The video I downloaded from iTunes was a 600MB TV show. The two podcasts were roughly 34MB each. By the time I reached my final destination of Newtown, Penn., two hours and 15 minutes later, all three files were sitting on my iPhone.

My daughter did what teenage girls do when they have a laptop and connectivity – Facebook.

I showed the Overdrive device to my 16-year-old son, who attends a boarding school in Newtown, and he too understood the importance of such a device in his life. “Dad, if I had that, I could get around the school’s firewall restrictions!”

He was right, since the Sprint data network operates outside of the wireless and wired networks on his campus. I spoke to some of the IT folks at his school and they confirmed that a few students were already using the Overdrive device and doing exactly that – getting around the school-based restrictions. Kids are certainly quick when it comes to technology.

In the past three weeks, I have driven between Washington, D.C. and New York City eight times and have used the Overdrive not only during these drives, but also at locations where there was no publically available Wi-Fi. Even at 3G speeds, I was able to use my laptop for most purposes. When connected to 4G, my access to Youtube and to data downloads was very good.

Once, out along the New Jersey turnpike, I used an iPhone app that scans for Wi-Fi connections, and wouldn’t you know it? I saw several other Overdrive units out there. So already, people on the cutting edge of technology are seeing the value of this unit. It won’t be long before other consumers see it as well.

Glenn Strachan is an international and domestic development expert who specializes in ICT, broadband and health information systems and has traveled to 98 countries. When not Twittering (@glennstrachan) or Facebooking, he reads email on glenn@glennstrachan.com.

26 January 2010

Why Some Airports Give Away Wi-Fi A few of the big U.S. airports are switching on free Wi-Fi for travelers. How can they afford it?

Last week, the Massachusetts Port Authority Board approved a plan to offer free Wi-Fi to passengers at Boston's Logan International Airport. Seattle's Sea-Tac airport is also a recent convert to the free Wi-Fi model. But both cities are in the minority. Of the top 20 airports in the country (ranked by traffic), only seven offer free Wi-Fi.

So why are some big airports switching to the free Wi-Fi model, while others continue to charge a fee? I spoke with representatives from three airports to find some answers.

Advertising Pays Off

Perry Cooper, public information officer for Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport, explained that November 2009 marked the end of a four-year contract with a company, who had built out the airport's wireless infrastructure. At about the same time, Google agreed to temporarily underwrite the Wi-Fi costs over the holidays, as it did for 54 other airports around the country. When that offer ended on January 15, 2010, Sea-Tac, freed of any contractual obligations, made Wi-Fi free. “We are considered a technology hub, and it only seemed right that the airport should provide free wireless.”

Jacqueline Mayo, public information office at Hopkins Airport in Cleveland, OH, said that they heard the clients very clearly: "We want free Wi-Fi." Mayo said that once their contract for wireless services ended, the airport made Wi-Fi a free service. They are currently working on an advertising model to help pay for the Wi-Fi. A splash screen will advertise coupons for shops and services and value-added offers within the airport.

Earning More Through Sponsorships

Other airports manage free Wi-Fi with a sponsorship-based business model. Samuel Ingalls, the assistant director of aviation, information systems at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nev., says that he looked at a dizzying number of business models and presentations by various service providers. Ingalls realized that because a campus-wide data network was already in place, it would be very inexpensive to implement Wi-Fi throughout McCarran. But he wasn't prepared to pass the cost along to the traveler.

“We felt it would be possible to provide the very best in customer service by not charging for the connectivity, while at the same time fulfilling our fiduciary responsibilities by earning more from sponsorships than we would from direct customer payment,” said Ingalls.

Free Wi-Fi access was launched at McCarran in January 2005, and while the airport has launched many innovative projects, free Wi-Fi has generated the most overwhelming positive user response. “Years later we still receive compliments from our very satisfied customer,” says Ingalls.

Charging the Traveler

In contrast, according to David MagaƱa, public affairs officer at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, Wi-Fi services will still cost travelers a fee. He said the costs associated with running and maintaining the wireless infrastructure are simply too great for the airport authority. Instead, vendors such as AT&T and T-Mobile will bear the brunt of providing Wi-Fi and will share the income with the airport. To entice potential users, the airport supplements the Wi-Fi with 17 kiosks that provide eight Ethernet cable access ports per kiosk.

Airports are under financial pressures to remain profitable, explained both Ray Diaz, the information technology manager for Miami’s airport, and Jeff Lee, public information officer at St. Louis’s Lambert Field. In the last 18 months, airports have seen reductions in travelers but at the same time have had to increase security. As a result, neither airport is in a position to offer free wireless.

Lee, who has witnessed Lambert Field drop out of the top 20 rankings for airport traffic, said, “We just do not have the money or resources to provide a free network."

The trend for free Wi-Fi is gaining some ground. Soon travelers will have little difficulty finding connectivity at airports in the United States. The question is whether it will be free of charge or not. Travelers do have options, especially if they're not flying through one of the major hubs. Check here to find out whether your next flight departs or arrives from an airport that offers free Wi-Fi.