Stefan Dubowski: Wi-Fi creates confusion

For the most part “choice” is a good thing in network technology. It denotes opportunities with new service providers, and it generally helps keep competitors on their toes. However, for the traveller seeking public wireless local area network (WLAN) connectivity, choice is quickly becoming a conundrum.

In the Canadian public WLAN arena, no fewer than four companies vie for the user’s attention. Bell Canada has set up WLAN “AccessZones” on a trial basis in certain spots in Ontario and Quebec. FatPort is quickly seeding the landscape with its own 802.11b connection centres. Spotnik Mobile is launching Wi-Fi access in Toronto. Toshiba of Canada joined the fray recently with a pay-per-use plan for its wireless “HotSpots.”

It’s an embarrassment of riches that might leave travellers wondering just which provider is right for them. In Ontario and Quebec, should they opt for Bell’s free-for-the-moment service? Perhaps FatPort’s recently reduced prices speak their language. Don’t discount Spotnik, which boasts that it’s growing “at a rate of a HotSpot per day.”

True, it’s relatively easy to decide which service provider to go with right now. Simply pick the one operating where you need access. But as WLAN service providers spread across the country, it will become more difficult to choose. Consider the situation at Toronto’s Union Station, where two service providers, Bell and FatPort, have turned on public WLAN service. Which one should the traveller patronize?

Technology further confuses the matter. Keep in mind that just because your PC card and the access point both sport the same alphanumeric label, say 802.11b, that’s not to say they’ll talk to each other.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, which conducts compatibility tests among wireless devices, discovered during 802.11a testing that some .11a products wouldn’t play nice with others. “We’ve found…a lot more incompatibilities than we anticipated,” said Brian Grimm, the Alliance’s spokesman. He said many 802.11b devices also presented compatibility problems.

Communication technology that doesn’t communicate makes public WLAN access even more confusing for users.

That said, the situation should improve. WLAN vendors are working to ensure interoperability among disparate devices. In time, any PC card should work across most vendor platforms.

As well, at least one public WLAN service provider, FatPort, is trying to write up roaming agreements, so users need not switch the software every time they wander too far from one access point and too close to another.

And besides, the sector is due for a shakeout, which could be good for users. There are too many players in this field and some of them are bound to fail, leaving a handful of stronger contenders and a less-confusing landscape to navigate.

Meanwhile, play it safe. By all means try each service, but don’t commit. Perhaps it’s best to pay for service on a per-use basis for the moment, rather than sign up for the monthly subscriptions that some service providers offer. Prudence could help guide travelling WLAN users to a future where choice is a good thing after all.