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CITIES USE FREE WI-FI TO ATTRACT BUSINESS TRAVELERS

WIRELESS DATA NEWS

January 15, 2003

Los Angeles suburb Long Beach, Calif., isn't relying on improving transportation in its downtown area or subsidizing hotel and restaurant discounts in order to grow business traffic. As part of its efforts to attract business travelers, the city expects to be a trendsetter by giving away Wi-Fi access to the Internet.

"It's a new business model," says Bruce Mayes, project manager for Long Beach's Economic Development Bureau. "Instead of asking people to pay by the minute, you have free access in areas where business people would want to use it."

However, Long Beach isn't the only city using (or planning to use) free Wi-Fi service to improve its business environment. Indeed, a number of other municipal entities are looking at offering the same sort of business inducement.

The NYCwireless free Wi-Fi project is working with several such groups as well as with four business improvement districts in New York City. What has become clear is that a growing number of municipalities are thinking more seriously about offering free Wi-Fi Internet connectivity to the business travel community, according to Anthony Townsend, chief operating officer of systems integrator Cloud Networks and a NYCwireless member. Free Wi-Fi is a basic requirement a premium urban space must have, he says.

In addition, hundreds of U.S. grassroots groups are stringing together free networks in cities around the country. While such efforts are not necessarily taking place in cities popular with business travelers, they nevertheless add to the increasing public knowledge and acceptance of Wi-Fi technology. Case in point: The Community Wireless Node Database Project currently lists 3,800 Wi-Fi access points in 278 cities around the country as free service nodes.

Clearly, the Wi-Fi cat is out of the bag and there's no way anyone is going to put it back, Townsend says. He notes that "a very small segment of the market ... is willing to pay for Wi-Fi."

In Jacksonville, Fla., the city government allows public access to the Wi-Fi networks it operates around government buildings and at commercial areas and a recreational park in its downtown zone. It's also planning to install Wi-Fi service at a water park and at Alltel Stadium, which will be the site of the 2005 NFL Super Bowl, says Sandy Bateh, Jacksonville's chief information officer.

Still, as appealing as widespread free access to Wi-Fi service is, it probably isn't good enough to satisfy the most demanding users --i.e., those users willing to pay for more complete service.

Initially, free service will be enticing and will help stimulate the market. But at the end of the day, "someone's got to pay for it," says Bill Howe, president and CEO of San Jose, Calif.-based Mobility Network Systems, which develops technology that links wide- and local-area wireless networks. "I don't see [free Wi-Fi] as being a viable, long-term business proposition," he opined.

Adding Value To Business Districts

Long Beach's proposition is a four-block area in its downtown shopping district, adjacent to its convention center, is covered by 802.11b access points linked to an antenna on a centrally located traffic signal. That antenna is linked to a broadband connection atop of a nearby 22-story building.

In Long Beach, many of those who use the convention center also patronize outdoor cafes, according to Mayes. For these people, the city's free Wi-Fi Internet access is a convenient way for them to stay in touch with home and office.

Since business travelers account for the largest number of Wi-Fi users, offering free access in areas they frequent could improve their opinions of those cities they frequently visit. There's no denying that free Internet access is popular. Adding wireless to the mix makes it even more so.

"That's definitely a value add," John Chang, wireless market analyst for Allied Business Intelligence, tells Wireless Data News. "There's definitely an incentive for it."

However, that incentive might not be enough for people already paying for Wi-Fi access to take the time to sign on through Long Beach's portal when they can access the Internet through their service providers without having to log on. A common demand that high-end wireless users--those with wireless-enabled laptops or PDAs in addition mobile phones--is that they want a single service provider for all their access.

Scott Drobner, wireless program director for InfoTech, a PBI Media-owned market research firm, thinks that while free Wi-Fi may help some communities attract business travelers, he isn't at all certain that many business travelers will be comfortable using the cities' Wi-Fi networks. Many of these people are used to paying rather high prices for wireless Internet access and like the more simplified approach of using a single provider for that purpose, he said.

Long Beach's annual costs for operating it's Wi-Fi network will be about $4,000. While that may sound like a relatively small sum for a southern California city to fork over, it really isn't. Long Beach saved the roughly $250,000 it would have otherwise cost to build the downtown network because all of the equipment was donated. The access points came from Intermec Technologies; the software to secure and operate the network came from Vernier Networks; the broadband connectivity came from Color Broadband; and the service's Web portal was created by G-site Web Design.

There's nothing particularly new about the concept of donating high-value techno skills and products to municipalities -- especially if the donations are coming from entities doing business in or near the needy municipality. Consider, for example, Internet infrastructure giant 3Coms [COMS]. It donated Wi-Fi equipment to a municipality. The San Francisco-based company funded a $1 million project to connect some 15 buildings used by the government of Rolling Meadows, Ill., the Chicago suburban home of 3Com's wireless infrastructure subsidiary, CommWorks. 3Com started deploying its Wi-Fi access point technology in 2001, primarily for school and business campuses and for state and local governments. Rolling Meadows was the first Wi-Fi project funded by 3Com, but the company told Wireless Data New it will consider other similar possibilities. (WDN, July 31, 2002.)

Long Beach isn't expecting to directly connect revenue growth for downtown businesses or increased tax revenue from tourism to its Wi-Fi offering. But it does consider the downtown coverage a value add for business travelers. Of course, anyone with an 802.11b modem on a mobile computing device--business person or consumer, visitor or resident--can use the free service.

The only limit Long Beach is setting is a one-hour cap on usage. If users need more time, they must log off and then reconnect. The service also requires users to submit their e-mail addresses when they log on. The city will use that information to prevent people who abuse the service from using it again.

 But there won't be any time limit when Long Beach offers the same service at its airport or its marinas. The city expects to launch free Wi-Fi service at its airport early next month, while deploying coverage to its marinas is a more long-term project.

     

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