Disruptive Adoption of Wi-Fi

By Eric Griffith

August 09, 2002

Reports out this week peg 802.11 as a 'disruptive technology' (that's a good thing), but one researcher says we're still years away from mass use of public Wi-Fi access unless the providers can truly hit their target audience.

Who wants to argue with an assessment that says 802.11-based connections are a "disruptive technology" headed for wide spread adoption and support by the teaming masses?

That assessment pretty much sums up the findings from senior research analyst Samuel May of investment bank US Bancorp Piper Jaffray. His "The Wireless LAN Report: 802.11 -- Disruptive Technology" points out that a United States 3G mobile data network deployment may be delayed significantly as carriers look to the lower cost of 802.11 based networks, in hopes of watching them grow "virally" in coming years, much like the success of the Internet and Web.

Andrew Luan, principal analyst at Insight On Wireless thinks the projection of mass Wi-Fi appeal might be a bit ahead of itself. He says that the United States won't see mass adoption of public use Wi-Fi until at least 2007.

Luan's report, "Public Access WiFi: Early Adopter Profiles and Acquisition Strategies," is based on interviews with current subscribers to public hotspots in the San Francisco area. Despite the popularity of hotspots and the struggles companies are going through to increase their footprint for roaming users, his findings indicate two major user segments to target, some of which never move beyond their local area.

"The two segments I did find were the Traveling Productive Professional -- that's the main target -- and the Freedom Loving Tech Worker," says Luan. "Each of these segments have different problems solved by public Wi-Fi."

"Freedom Loving Tech Workers wants to take work to a public spot to stay productive. They use about 15 to 20 hours [of access time] a month, and are willing to pay about 20 to 25 dollars per month for unlimited access, "says Luan. In general, this group tends to stay in their own metropolitan area. "They don't need a huge footprint, just one or two places they can access. The benefit is the freedom to work away from home or office.

"Productive Traveling Professionals [need] to constantly be able to stay in touch while on the road. They typically travel about one or two times per week, and are generally in management or sales, and they go national or at least regional. The product to offer these people is a pay-per-use basis. Most providers don't have a large enough footprint to take advantage of a subscription program. For pay per use, such as $3 per hour at the airport, that makes sense for them."

His interviews also show a surprising outcome: Security isn't an issue. Most don't work in public with data sensitive enough to worry about, but even more likely, says Luan, is that there is yet to be a big media story about how an insecure Wi-Fi connection ruined some individuals life.

Based on stories like what may have happened to Best Buy, Luan says "Enterprises do have to worry, but there haven't been any stories on a personal level."

Reliability is far more important to these users.

Luan was previously a marketing manager for Metricom, the company who's failed Ricochet Network of proprietary high-speed wireless modems was one of the more disappointing failures of 2001. (Ricochet may still be trying to come back to life under the control of Aerie Networks.) Luan knows what it's like for a company to burn through money before the product is off the grown, and hopes the Wi-Fi hotspot network providers don't repeat history.

"There is a business for people in public Wi-Fi now," Luan says. His message for hotspot providers is simple: "Concentrate and be focused in your marketing, and how you package the service is important. Tech workers care about unlimited access. You need to keep in mind what the usage profile is and consider that you're not going to have a big enough foot print for [traveling professionals]. You need enough cash to keep moving."

Public Wi-Fi aside, Samuel May's report with its much broader overview -- it goes into the chipset makers, the competing technologies, and other forms of 802.11 use (standard enterprise LANs, "final mile" broadband to homes and offices, etc.) -- takes a much rosier outlook.

"We believe the industry is currently reaching a major inflection point for widespread adoption," says the report.

Who will be right remains to be seen in the coming months and years.

Eric Griffith is the managing editor of 802.11 Planet.

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