Wireless: a walk through the new world

Enrique Dans. Director IT/IS Department. Instituto de Empresa

14 September 2004

A brief look at the brave new biosphere being created by wireless technology.

Yes, I know: wireless networks aren’t really the new world. The 802.11x standards, for example, have been around a long time. However, use of networks based on this family of protocols is relatively recent. In fact, Spanish operators only began offering various versions of this technology less than a year ago, using the availability of wireless connections as the main attraction.

Still, we know we are in a new world because the variety of “organisms” is wider than usual in other “ecosystems,” and because “natural selection” hasn’t yet led to that boring state where a small number of competitors offer similar products - as is typical in matured sectors. Some years ago, strategy or marketing experts had to wait eons to enjoy the variety that we have reached in just a few years. I propose a short walk around this new world, to see the delights it has to offer.

Imagine we’re going on a trip, which was what happened to me last week: Madrid – Munich – Cologne – London – Madrid. I took a Tablet PC and a wireless along, and more things to do than I would have liked, which meant I tried to connect wherever I was. I managed to observe the different “species” that live in the new world of wireless connections, as if I were strolling through a modern-day zoo.

I arrived at Barajas and made my first connection in the Business Lounge. The network was open to anyone with a computer. In other words, wireless technology was being used by an airline as a “consideration” toward passengers who could use this lounge (and, given the proverbial ease with which waves pass through thin walls, I imagine it was also toward those who, aware of the fact, cleverly positioned themselves just outside). But a nice thought on the part of the airline. I read my mail, scanned a newspaper, drank a fruit juice and boarded the plane. In the cabin, no connection at all. But it won’t be long before wireless linkups are offered in passenger seats. However, so far, zilch. Prehistoric.

Different strokes

Arriving in Munich, I went to my hotel. Turning on my computer, I found another wireless network, but this one wouldn’t let me connect. Instead of the page I wanted, I got another one, belonging to a company informing me I could purchase an access card which, for €26, would give me a 24-hour connection. But once you started, the 24 hours ticked away, non-stop. Interestingly, the page offered access to users belonging to a couple of telecommunications firms, so I began to see where the business lay. What in Spain was given free by an airline, I had to pay a telecommunications company for in Germany (and it wasn’t cheap), thanks to a hotel that also charged me. I paid, used the network, and next day went to the airport. What did I find? Switching the machine on, I discovered another wireless network. This one belonged to a telecommunications operator. Subscribers were given access at certain rates, while others had to buy a card. Another way of doing things.

My hotel in Cologne, which belonged to the same chain, used the identical system as in Munich. However, at the airport the network was provided by a different telecommunications group. A similar formula, similar price. I set up my “office” next to a hotspot, paid with my credit card, answered some mail, sent a few files and continued on my journey. When I reached London, the hotel had its own wireless network and let me use it for a price, which was somewhat high.

And the story continues… At each stop on the way, different “species.” In one place, an airline; in another, a telecommunications company; in a third, hotels. In some spots, free; in others, a flat rate; yet others charged a rate per minute. With pre-payment, a contract, post-payment included on an overall bill… a great variety of players, models and options. A complete new world full of possibilities to explore.

And what’s going to happen? Well, at least it will be entertaining to watch. New species will appear; old ones will die off. There will be competition with “kamikaze” organisms, which will offer everything free of charge, reminiscent of the ISP wars. Or with “all-in-one” global operators, where customers can leave their worries behind and simply access and pay in a single bill. Others might offer free access in exchange for advertising. The possibilities are endless. In this new world, the capacities that sustain efficient competition need not necessarily be the same as those used in the old world. In the new world, the capacities are different and only time will tell who has them and who uses them best. Are you ready?

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