Tue, 10 Jun 2003

WiFi: A prominent 'third' place

Wasis Gunarto, Contributor, Jakarta

Just picture this situation. After a hectic day at your office, you decide to unwind at one of the city's numerous cafes. This time your decision is one of your most favorite spots, Starbucks coffee shop.

As a regular customer you are familiar with everything here. But not this evening. You "smell" something new is in the air. Yes, you are right. There is a brand-new item on their menu: WiFi, short for Wireless Fidelity.

So, while sipping your Iced Caramel Macchiato Espresso, you switch on your notebook or Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and the range of choices in front of you is almost limitless: listening to your favorite tunes via an MP3 player, chatting, sending e-mails, browsing websites, transferring payments, downloading a movie or, if you are one of those workaholics, drafting out a business proposal.

Connection is smooth, easy and, above all, hassle-free. Thanks to the wireless network, such as the Boingo software, the PowerPC automatically searches for the wireless network frequency. Cost- wise it is also much cheaper. Using a printer with a USB port or Ethernet card that is connected to an access point, printing your work on Word, Excel or Powerpoint, and any type of downloading, is just a click away. For ease and convenience, this is a world away from all the wires and cables of conventional printing.

The prerequisite, of course, is your notebook or PDA should have a speed of 11 mbps and is equipped with a WiFi receiver. If you do not have one, stop scratching your head. As mentioned earlier, it is on Starbucks' "menu". The rate is US$ 15.95 per month.

WiFi, a new Internet service using high-speed, wireless technology, has been on Starbucks' menu since August 2002. Created by a research team from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), it is often referred to as IEEE 802.11b. Though available in a number of variants, the commonly used and fastest growing is 802.11b, with a speed of 11 mbps on a bandwidth of 2.4 GHz.

As of April 2003, more than 500 Starbucks outlets have been equipped with a WiFi system, and 4,000 outlets, including those in Indonesia, are planned similarly within the next two years.

Meanwhile, in another location, on Newbury street, Boston, U.S., most of the shops have installed wireless fidelity. This goes to show the trend of new services that are already and will soon be provided by shops, cafes, restaurants and so forth around the world.

Naturally, marketers are fully aware of the profitability of this technology. The longer customers stay at these places, the more food and drink they order. Also, notebook and PDA rental is another highly potential source of revenue. In line with "the world going mobile", these businesses seem to have no choice but to make such services available for their customers.

Another major fast-food chain that has gone WiFi is McDonalds since March, 2003. Using technology from Intel, which has launched its high-tech Centrino processor, combined with a heavy advertising campaign, McDonalds' marketing people are geared to serve their worldwide clientele with their latest, lucrative "side dish".

During the introduction period at 10 McDonald's outlets in New York, the WiFi technology is provided free for one hour with the purchase of an Extra Value Meal. The next hour is priced at US$ 3 which, for New Yorkers, is peanuts.

WiFi fever has also caught on in Australia. Brisbane International Airport is now equipped with this facility. At Aus$ 13.20 per hour, Optus, the provider, is minting money from passengers who want to while away the time more "usefully" rather than getting bored prior to boarding.

This initial success has prompted Optus to plan the installation of WiFi 802.11b in more than 500 locations within the next 18 months at a budget of around Aus$ 10 million. Among the locations targeted are airports, seaports, cafes, convention centers, hotels, apartment buildings, campuses, and so forth.

WiFi is only possible using the appropriate equipment, such as a notebook computer with a speed of at least 11 mbps. By the end of 2002, about 20 percent of notebooks manufactured had WiFi accessibility. However, wireless network experts and analysts estimate that before the end of 2005 this number will be close to 95 percent. Meanwhile, Time Online reported that it could be sooner or the number could be higher due to the current high percentage -- 57 percent -- of companies in America that have used WiFi.

Apple and Toshiba, two of the world's major companies for high-tech communication products, have prepared the most convenient "vehicles" for consumers for easy and smooth Internet access via WiFi. Toshiba has launched its e740 Pocket PC that comes with a WiFi card. Apple's Airport Extreme, just as its name implies, is equipped with an extremely high-speed WiFi -- 54 mbps -- and a broader bandwidth of 5 Ghz.

Just imagine the awesome speed of 54 mbps, because the slower speed of 11 mbps is already sufficient to watch a movie on your computer while simultaneously opening your e-mails. Another delightful bit of information is from Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab, who recently said "the days of 1 gbps are not too far away."

The phenomenally high speed of WiFi has created a close attachment or "addiction" among consumers. All sorts of multimedia have been made possible and more real, including 3D games like Counterstrike or Winning Eleven, which provide hours of enjoyment to end users and piles of cash to providers.

For marketers, the growth of this multimedia, information, communication "cohort" is more than welcome. Some marketing gurus have predicted -- probably correctly -- that in the not too distant future new types of spots will crop up and mushroom worldwide. These, plus the world-brand cafes and restaurants and so forth, along with the most advanced WiFi facilities, are forecast as the third place for daily activities next to office and home. Albeit ranked as the third, it will be, at least, equally important due to its "consumer-pampering capabilities".