Public Wi-Fi Is Like Eating Pizza Through a Straw
June 2004 - By Bob Egan

To many business travelers hungry for constant wireless connectivity, public Wi-Fi can be as tempting as a pizza with all the fixings. But the technical complexities, like lack of QoS and security issues, may make it feel as frustrating as trying to eat that pizza through a straw.

While public hot spots may feed the need of frequent travelers to stay connected and appeal to the gourmet coffee crowd, a multitude of problems threaten to make hot spots turn colder than the Antarctic for the business traveler:
•Wi-Fi hot spot access is not easy or
convenient to use;
•the enterprise has reasonable reservations about public hot spot security,
performance and ROI;
•hot spots are prone to interference; and
•coverage is spotty and inconsistent.

As Good As It Looks?

The first problem is that often it’s not clear when you are in a hot spot. And even if a user is clearly within range, there are the matters of providers, service plans and compatible devices. The non-technical business traveler may still find herself on the phone with her IT group. Travelers may be required to install additional software (that they often do not have the administrative privileges to install) and they may lack the technical know-how to make necessary tweaks to firewall and network configurations. Result: Lost time, frustration and higher total cost of ownership (TCO).

Half Baked?

Purveyors of hot spots seem to think that they will attract a wider business audience once they bring enterprises more firmly into the fold, a scenario that seems unlikely anytime soon, given these few reasons.

First, IT staff are afraid that hot spots could compromise corporate networks. The knee-jerk reaction has been to limit or eliminate access through unauthorized access points. IT groups rightfully doubt the effectiveness of new security methods, like Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), to resolve security concerns. WPA is a migration step toward 802.11i. While Temporary Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) has been selected as the encryption method, the standards committee has failed to choose an authentication method except to say it must be a version of the Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP). Equally curious is the fact that 802.11i does not support the new protocol that both Microsoft and Cisco actually agree on: Protected Extensible Authentication Protocol (PEAP). Public hot spots are clearly at risk for never being compatible with an enterprise security policy.

What’s more, the lack of comprehensive roaming agreements, which may benefit the territorial interests of a provider, forces the traveling worker to move between Wi-Fi coverage areas like a boat sailing between oases down a dry riverbed. It’s nearly impossible for enterprises to get scale of economies or to configure effectively for Wi-Fi access across providers and minimize TCO. History has shown this was a prerequisite for the explosion of the mobile phone industry. Why has this not been an intuitive campaign of the Wi-Fi industry? Finally, the enterprise decision maker has not been presented with a clear strategy for achieving ROI by encouraging his or her employees to use public hot spots.•

Bob Egan, a 25-year industry veteran, is president of Mobile Competency ( He can be reached at [email protected]


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