Let's take the example of a single wireless laptop user we'll call John:
• LGA. John starts his day at New York's La Guardia Airport. Before hopping on the shuttle to Boston, he uses a wireless service in the terminal to download a corporate document he needs.
• BOS. Now in Boston's Logan Airport, John logs on to a different wireless access point to see if a client has sent him an e-mail regarding this morning's meeting.
• Latteland. The meeting over, John wanders into a nearby Starbucks to send his co-workers a report on the meeting, including several questions that its participants had peppered him with.
• Check-in. In his hotel room, John signs up for wireless access to answer his e-mail and prepare a new proposal for his potential clients.
The bottom line? John's used four different wireless services in just 12 hours. Each one has its own minimum charges and access policies.
You may think this is an extreme example, because John probably couldn't even set up in one day all the separate accounts that he'd need for this kind of connectivity. But it's not at all an unusual number of connections for employees who've come to depend on Wi-Fi as an essential feature of their laptops and handhelds.
Making a Beautiful Quilt Out of Patchy Service
Enterprises that put many workers in the field are turning to "aggregators" — meta-services that provide centralized management and a single bill for all kinds of dial-up, wired, and wireless Internet access, worldwide.
"For corporations, it cuts out so much fuss that they'd otherwise have to face in managing separate accounts on separate networks," explains Glenn Fleishman, the editor of Wi-Fi Networking News.
Head-to-Head for Internet Access, Anywhere
These two corporations, which have offered dial-up and wired Internet access for years, have recently started a pitched battle to outdo each other in offering the greatest number of high-speed Wi-Fi hotspots.
• iPass. "We're the Switzerland of enterprise connectivity services," says Jon Russo, iPass's VP of Marketing. The Redwood Shores, Calif., company enables its customers to use over 1,500 Wi-Fi access points that are operated by numerous different carriers with whom it holds contracts. That's just part of the 18,000 total points of presence (mostly dial-up and wired Ethernet) that iPass offers in 150 countries.
The iPass system can be configured to guarantee to a CIO that a user's VPN (virtual private network), personal firewall, and anti-virus software are all running properly on his or her laptop before it can connect to the corporate server. Wireless service is billed by iPass at between 12 and 19 cents per minute (with a daily cap) in North America, according to Russo, which can represent a substantial savings over pay-per-day fees.
The company's clients include eBay, J.D. Edwards, and Borden Chemical. iPass is widely expected to raise $70 million in a rare high-tech IPO (initial public offering) this month. Building upon its existing relationships with telcos, iPass recently appointed T-Mobile executive Cregg Baumbaugh to its board.
• GRIC Communications. "We take away the worries from management about whether their commmunications are secure," says GRIC president Bharat Davé. Like iPass's software, GRIC's won't allow a roaming device to log on to a network unless appropriate security features are running.
GRIC, based in Milpitas, Calif., boasts 1,600 Wi-Fi access locations in 14 countries. Its pricing is "in the same range" as iPass, according to Davé. The Wi-Fi hot spots make up a portion of GRIC's 20,000 total points of presence in more than 150 countries. GRIC has been publicly traded on the Nasdaq exchange since 1999. It counts among its clients Matsushita Avionics, Itochu Technology, and Xicor.
My conclusion: Your enterprise may not depend on centrally managed Wi-Fi access today. But if you don't already have a plan for it, you may find that it's being done for you. Employees may already be buying their own cheap Wi-Fi cards and creating an invisible roaming network under your very nose. I'd say this is one curve you'd be smart to get ahead of.