The number of wireless Lan (WLan) hot spots worldwide will more than double by 2005, according to a Gartner analyst.
Potential fans of the hot spots, where internet access is available to users of notebook PCs and other devices equipped with IEEE 802.11 technology, are frustrated by the limited number of hot spots available and the lack of consistency among billing systems, according to Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney.
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The report forecasted there would be 71,079 hot spots worldwide this year, up from just 14,752 in 2002 and 1,214 in 2001. The number of hot spots is likely to grow to 151,768 by 2005.
The report said that there would be 9.3 million visitors to hot spots in 2003, up from 2.5 million in 2002. North America, with 4.7 million users, will top both Europe and Asia-Pacific this year. Gartner said Asia-Pacific had 2.7 million users and 1.7 million in Europe this year.
Professional users of notebook PCs increasingly have the capability to use WLans, with a majority projected to have 802.11 capability on their notebooks in 2004, but hot spot use probably would not reach "critical mass" for three to five years, Dulaney said.
He defined the term to mean that more than half of users pay for hot spot access on a monthly bill rather than per use. Before that happens, users will need pervasive access to hot spots, a consistent login experience and a single bill.
Coverage is good but it will not draw that critical mass of users until enough of them find they can walk to a hot spot or reach it by driving a short distance, he said.
In addition, users want to be able to log on to different service providers' hot spots, linked through a roaming agreement, without having to go through different sign-on procedures, Dulaney said.
However, this poses both technical and business issues for the service providers, he said. Issues include what the rates should be, who should get what portion of the revenue and what the quality of service should be.
"It's a serious problem. It's going to take some time to get sorted out," Dulaney said.
A public WLan could also benefit the provider, either a carrier or an enterprise, in ways other than bringing in its own revenue stream, he said.
For example, a fast food restaurant might adopt a WLan to give its workers mobility and improve their productivity. It could use that same WLans to draw customers. It would not be there as a profit centre itself and, in some cases, access might even be free, which would save the provider the cost of a billing system, he added.
By the same token, a mobile phone operator might wrap an all-you-can-eat hot spot access service into a customer's monthly bill as an enticement.
The carrier "might not make a profit on that, but they get you as a customer. What they would do is make a profit on the overall package of services they give you," Dulaney said.
Europe is behind the US in the hot spot trend, said Dulaney. Prices for access are higher in Europe because the various parties involved, such as the service provider, wireline backhaul carrier and venue operator, demand more money than they do in the US. In addition, no one in Europe has successfully led a movement toward billing interoperability, he added.
A majority of the hot spots worldwide this year, a total of 50,287, will be in retail outlets, such as coffee shops, restaurants and petrol stations, Gartner estimated.
In 2005, retail still will lead with a predicted 85,567 hot spots. Other popular places for hot spots include airports, hotels, train stations and the public areas of enterprise facilities.
Stephen Lawson writes for IDG News Service