Panel: hotspots need to thrive in enterprise to survive

Ready or not, the rapid rise of mobile wireless “hotspot” locations across Canada means that enterprises will have to deal with the technology sooner or later, experts say.

Indeed, the issue at hand during an Intel Corp.-sponsored Wi-Fi and wireless LAN (WLAN) roundtable Tuesday was the future of hotspots and their place within the enterprise.

Doug Cooper, country manager at Intel Canada, noted that the stigma surrounding enterprise Wi-Fi security still lingers, despite the issue being technically solved.

And whether organizations condone it or not, workers are using their Wi-Fi-enabled notebook computers and handheld devices to connect to Wi-Fi hotspots. IDC Canada estimates there will be 450 commercial hotspot areas – in hotels, coffee shops, airports and other public locations – within Canada by the end of 2003, rising to 4,200 locations in 2007. IDC added the number of users will climb from 5,400 to 25,000 respectively.

Contrary to the doom and gloom within the telecommunications industry, wireless has been a bright spot, said Lawrence Surtees, director of telecom research for IDC Canada Ltd. But there are still obstacles to deal with – issues such as roaming, billing and security still hover over the industry.

Other than the early adopters and relative growth and usage in the small- to medium-sized business (SMB) space, there is still a long way to go. And as wireless hotspots increase in popularity, so do the wireless concerns, particularly over security. Workers using the technology need to be aware of the importance of firewalls and VPNs, Surtees said.

Last January, Mountainview, Calif.-based Wi-Fi Alliance – a non-profit organization formed in 1999 to certify interoperability of IEEE 802.11 products – launched a global branding initiative to better recognize public WLAN locations.

For wireless infrastructure service providers (WISPs), the current business model for hotspots needs to reach critical mass in the enterprise to survive, according to Sean O’Mahony, CEO of Vancouver-based FatPort Corp.

Ultimately, the question is whether enterprises perceive the hotspot phenomenon as having immediate business value. FatPort, with 90 locations and approximately 2,300 subscribers, anticipates rapid growth by the end of the year, but O’Mahony is determined to “sell into the enterprise.” Enterprises are willing to pay, O’Mahony offered, adding that providing the technology on a pay-as-you-go or monthly payment plan actually legitimizes the technology in the eyes of the enterprise.

Murray McCaig, CEO for Spotnik Mobile Inc. noted that while pricing is still an issue, until enterprises are convinced that WLANs are secure and begin to roll out the technology to their mobile employees, heavy adoption likely won’t happen.

As part of an enterprise best practice strategy, Surtees noted that IT departments need to be up to the task of dealing with wired and wireless networks as one in terms of management and security.