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Public Hotspots and the Enterprise: Ready for Prime Time?

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As a managing partner in a network consulting and engineering firm, Jeff Cornejo is technically savvy. That’s why, as part of a client’s information technology (IT) strategy, he recently sent an employee to a coffee shop.

“He’s a sales rep for a large manufacturing company that does over-the-Internet training every Friday,” explained Cornejo, managing partner for Blue Ridge Internetworks in Charlottesville, Va. “He doesn’t have broadband access, so his option was to drive two hours to a large city, take two hours of training, then drive back. That’s a lot of dead time.”

Instead, the employee takes his Wi-Fi-enabled laptop to a coffee shop in Charlottesville, five minutes from his home. The shop has a public Wi-Fi hotspot so he can connect to the Internet and take the training.

This scenario explains both the current strengths and shortcomings of public hotspots. On the one hand, they can be invaluable for connecting mobile and remote employees to both the Internet and to enterprise resources. On the other hand, they’re not quite ready for prime time.

In Its Infancy

Part of the problem is that there still aren’t enough public hotspots and it’s not clear when there will be.

“Wi-Fi hotspots today are in a chicken and egg situation,” said Mike McClaskey, CIO for Perot Systems. “Everybody wants the network to be built, but that won’t happen until there are enough customers.”

Added Ken Dulaney, vice president for mobile computing for Gartner, Inc.: “A nice word to describe the coverage is ‘poor.’ There are maybe 10,000 or 15,000 hotspots nationwide. For critical mass to be achieved, we need 100,000.”

Another problem, Dulaney said, is that existing hotspots aren’t evenly distributed.

“It varies so much throughout the country,” he said. “The Dallas airport has wireless, but in O’Hare, American Airlines has it, but United doesn’t.” Hotspots are becoming common in coffee shops — Starbucks is installing them in most of their locations — and in hotel lobbies, but not necessarily in other public places.

McClaskey said that the lack of coverage has led Perot Systems to look at alternatives.

“What’s preventing us from taking hotspots to the next level is the gap between coverage of Wi-Fi hotspots and the coverage you get with next-generation cellular service,” McClaskey said. He estimated that less than 100 of Perot’s 10,000 associates regularly use public hotspots.

He noted that, by far, e-mail is what Perot’s 10,000 associates want most often while they travel. As a result, he said there’s more interest among the Perot associates in always-on e-mail devices such as Research In Motion’s BlackBerry. Increasingly, these devices use next-generation wireless services such as GPRS.

“This approach is slower than using a hotspot, and you don’t get a full connection into the enterprise, but for e-mail, that’s acceptable,” he McClaskey said.

Another problem is the fragmentation of the emerging hotspot industry. A handful of players such as T-Mobile, WayPort and Boingo control the majority of public access points and there is no roaming or inter-billing among the vendors.

“It’s like cell phones were many years ago,” said Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research for Nucleus Research. “As a result, it’s mostly individuals making purchases on their own and billing it to their companies as expenses.”

As Always, Security

As often is the case with Wi-Fi, another issue slowing widespread adoption of public hotspots by enterprises is security. Most hotspot providers, in order to simplify connecting, provide little or no security. That means that information technology (IT) shops must think through security issues even if their company doesn’t yet have a specific hotspot strategy.

That’s because many laptops now come with Wi-Fi capabilities built in. As a result, a traveling end user can, on his or her own, use a hotspot and expense it to the company. If that laptop isn’t secure, the user potentially is opening up the company’s information assets to others.

As you might expect, a huge system integrator such as Perot Systems, is fully aware of that danger.

“We’ve taken the approach that you should consider any Wi-Fi network an untrusted network,” McClaskey said. With that in mind, he said that the company has adopted two approaches to security.

“In general, we encourage people to use our standard VPN (virtual private network) client whenever they use Wi-Fi, whether it’s at a hotspot or at home,” McClaskey said.

He acknowledged that, because VPNs result in relatively slow performance, some Perot Systems hotspot users prefer the second method — logging on via the wireless network to the Internet, then logging into the company’s Web portal. This provides better performance but doesn’t give the user broad access to enterprise data that the VPN approach does.

Enterprise Strategies

So IT shops find themselves in a situation in which hotspots are both immature and highly attractive. What should they do?

First, don’t worry — yet — about return-on-investment (ROI) issues related to hotspots. Nucleus Research’s Wettemann, who specialize in return-on-investment issues, says there often is a good ROI, but only on a case-by-case basis.

“There are a lot of highly-paid individuals sitting around in coffee shops and airports who could be much more productive,” she said.

Dulaney urged IT shops to start monitoring expense reports to see how often mobile employees are expensing hotspot access.

“I’d create a category of expenses for hotspots so you can see what users are doing,” Dulaney counseled.

Dulaney also said he is urging his clients to look into working with companies that aggregate all manner of remote and broadband access and see if they’ll include hotspot access as well.

Cornejo stressed IT shops should operate as though their mobile users already are accessing hotspots. That means installing adequate security on mobile devices, including personal firewalls. It also means deciding how you want mobile workers to access enterprise data via hotspots.

One thing everybody we contacted agreed about is that with prices for Wi-Fi equipment and hotspot access coming down, hotspots are becoming a fact of life for the enterprise, even if they’re not ready for prime time.

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