Coffee, black, no Wi-Fi

The honeymoon is over. Wi-Fi has been getting a free ride from me and most other columnists who sing the praises of wireless LAN connectivity. But for my money, 1,700 Starbucks coffee shops offering IEEE 802.11b does not qualify as ubiquitous wireless coverage. I don’t even like their coffee.

Nor does a dozen or more airports with hot spots help me much. I want more than that, and I suspect a lot of road warriors would agree. For example, pharmaceutical salespeople sitting in a doctor’s office. How many years do you think it will take before most doctors have Wi-Fi?

I’m not arguing against Wi-Fi in an on-campus situation. We have it in my office, and a fellow I know, Jeff Belk, senior vice president of Qualcomm Inc., has several million square feet of WLAN coverage on his campus in San Diego.

But once you leave the campus, what system will offer the most complete coverage? Belk says wide-area air cards from the likes of Verizon Communications Inc. or Sprint Corp. Of course, Belk works for the company that owns the patent on CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) 2000, which is used by both carriers, but that doesn’t invalidate his argument.

According to Belk, if a user can get sustained wireless access above the performance level of a wired connection, 56Kbps, then the case for a wireless data card in your notebook or handheld, instead of Wi-Fi, makes more sense. He claims an average 80Kbps to 90Kbps in those areas where carriers have optimized service and 50Kbps-plus where complete coverage is still being rolled out.

A national subscription to T-Mobile’s hot-spot service is US$49.99 for unlimited minutes and 500MB of data with 25 cents per megabyte beyond that. Boingo, which has all of 800 locations, charges $74.95 for unlimited access.

Verizon’s Express Network and Sprint’s PCS Vision service using a wireless 1X cell card for data costs $100 per month, and you can use it anywhere you get cell coverage. Don’t laugh. I realize cell coverage can be very aggravating, but it’s undeniable the coverage area is wider by an order of magnitude over IEEE 802.11x.

Here’s what I see as a potential scenario: As 3G service improves, and 3G data cards in notebooks and handhelds proliferate, users will question why they need to subscribe to both wide-area and Wi-Fi hot-spot services.

Imagine, with a Verizon Express Network card, you won’t have to drink Starbucks coffee to get access; you can choose a local mom-and-pop cafe.

Once the purveyors of hot-spot location services start to get some competition, and their subscription rates slow, gravity will pull them back down to earth with a thud, fewer locations will open, and then they will become a faint, perhaps quaint, memory.

Wireless connectivity is still in its infancy, and technology may swing in yet another direction that no one has anticipated. But, all things being equal, I think Wi-Fi will find its place at home and on the corporate campus. Everywhere else, business users will subscribe, by and large, to wireless data transport offered by cellular carriers.

Ephraim Schwartz is editor at large at InfoWorld. Contact him at