Â Worldwide, the number of wireless and mobile users is increasing, albeit at a pace slower than expected, and will transform the society and enable new models and ways for enterprises to do business. Wireless and mobile technologies will become pervasive and encompass every aspect of our lives, eventually leading to an always-on society.
As is true of any evolving and upcoming technology, the wireless and mobile market had its ups and downs too in 2002. The trumpeting march of wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) prompted the proliferation of wireless LAN (WLAN) hot spots, globally. GSM wireless networks evolved to GPRS, and MMS hit the market–together with MMS-enabled phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other such devices. But GPRS was not successful, mainly because it was prohibitively expensive; less convenient than its 2G predecessor; and was disappointing in terms of bandwidth, reliability and roaming support. Bluetooth and Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) standards also disappointed the market because of lack of interoperability among different vendor implementations.Â
The global picture has also not been very exciting, particularly for mobile operators. Most of them had a tough year and their dreams of building successful businesses around 3G technology turned into 3-D nightmares–debt, delays and doubt. With heavy investments into the 3G licenses, they are now under strong financial pressure with no clear understanding of how to generate future revenue. Many players have been forced to review their strategies, withdrawing from international 3G initiatives to focus on local markets.
Commercially available since 1989, WLAN is now a mature technology. Since 2000, the WLAN equipment market has seen impressive growth in both the enterprise and consumer segments. It has driven the emergence of WLAN ‘hot spots’– public places offering wireless access to the Internet, e-mail and other applications, via devices such as portable PCs and personal digital assistants (PDAs). Increasingly, business travelers can find them at airport lounges, hotels and conference sites. Several large chains in the US are trying to emulate Starbucks, which offers WLAN access to clients in its shops. As more end-users adopt WLAN devices for business or private use, more wireless hot spots will be set up. They will become a necessity for people on the move. WLAN hot spots are spreading globally and are one of the most interesting phenomena of the mobile and wireless space in 2002. It is estimated that as of now there are over 20 million WiFi devices installed and it is expected that this number will grow to 35 million in 2003 and generate a business of $3.7 billion by 2005.
What are businesses doing with WiFi? Quite a bit. Demand for WiFi in conference rooms, corporate campuses and by business travelers stems from the use of laptops. Yankee group estimates that almost 40 million users in the US or 25 percent of the work force is mobile. Gartner Group estimates that almost 50 percent of all laptops will be WiFi enabled by 2003 and this figure will go up to 90 percent by 2007. Almost half of the US business users will be using WiFi by the end of this year.
Initially it may have been just the sheer pleasure of playing with the new technology but now it is being seen as a tool to improve productivity as it keeps one connected to the corporate infrastructure all the time.
In the coming times hotspot providers will start offering their clients a new range of value-added services–tightly related to the hotspot location–location aware services). For example, airport hot spots may offer information on flight timings, directions to gates and other relevant places, and advertising from duty-free shops. Portals, such as Vizzavi and Yahoo, may develop localized instances for hot spots, which will be used on PDAs in a hotspot area and behave as transient portals.
Despite rapid growth since 2000, there are still many hurdles for hotspot service providers, both technical and commercial, and many more developments are yet to happen.
When WLANs started to be adopted, mobile operators considered the technology to be a major threat. They had strong concerns about the disruptive potential of WLAN-based services versus third-generation global networks. Now, most mobile operators are looking at WLANs as a potential business opportunity–a means of supporting mobile computing and PDA users, reducing traffic on their congested networks and enabling better coverage inside buildings. New players also operate in this market, but the costs of infrastructure and operation are high, and with unclear business models, revenue will remain low in the short term. Competition will be tough for newcomers because mobile operators may leverage their established billing facilities to offer subscribers integrated connectivity services, covering both global network and WLAN access.
WiFi is an opportunity for the Cellular operators and carriers. It must be positioned as not competing with 3G. Coexistence is necessary as different usage patterns drive architecture and applications. Enterprise can benefit the most with WiFi by focusing on specific applications and increasing the productivity of their mobile workforce by keeping them always connected to the corporate network. As these networks grow, the operational challenges will be the key. As more security, manageability and range becomes available, WiFi will require a carrier mentality to make a nationwide network.
Ravi S Jain vice-president (R&D) Mahindra-British Telecom Limited