Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Wi-Fi versus Cell Phone Service

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Wi-Fi versus Cell Phone Service

Article excerpt

Traveling from my parents' place in South Carolina to my family's home in western New York is quite the end-of-vacation ordeal, particularly while trying to do it in one 14-hour shot with two rambunctious little boys in the back seat. In fact, when we attempt it, we only have about a 50 percent success rate. Sometimes we drive the entire trip in 1 very long day, and sometimes we stop overnight in the Mid-Atlantic states. During our last summer vacation, we needed to stop. After hours of driving in heavy traffic, we made it to Maryland in the late evening. Since we still had a full 5 hours of driving ahead of us, my wife convinced me to stop at a Microtel in Hagerstown, Md. Seventy dollars bought us a clean room with a kitchenette, space for a couple of rounds of "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" before bedtime stories, decent bagels and juice the next morning, and, lo and behold, free in-room wireless access! Sweet.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Contrast this Microtel stay to a more recent trip to Nashua, N.H., where I stayed at a very nice Sheraton. Although the Microtel was pleasant and comfortable, the Sheraton was clearly in a different class, with a beautifully landscaped property and high-thread-count cotton sheets. Just as you would expect, the Sheraton beat the Microtel in every way except in one very important area. While the Microtel had free, in-room Wi-Fi, the Sheraton charged an additional $10 per day for high-speed wired access. And this isn't the only example of how an economy-grade or budget-conscious business is utilizing free wireless access as a competitive advantage over a higher-end rival.

Changing Expectations

Want a little wireless capability with your latte and scone? It seems that many independent coffeehouses are offering free wireless, while Starbucks still requires a fee to use its Wi-Fi network. Another example of the "little guy" honing the competitive edge is the tiny Rochester, N.Y., airport, which offers free wireless, while New York's LaGuardia airport requires a $10 per day fee to access its Wi-Fi network. When I start to see prices all over the place--ranging from free to $20 per day for wireless access in hotels, airports, and restaurants, it makes me wonder: What are the true costs of wireless? How will businesses and institutions respond to our increasing demand for wireless? As wireless becomes more pervasive, how will its delivery change--perhaps in a move away from individual hotspots and toward wider mesh networks or WiMAX systems?

Knowing a little bit about wireless, I know that it is inexpensive to set up and run a small, somewhat secure home or small business wireless network. In light of this relative simplicity, it is easy to see why small businesses look at Wi-Fi access as a highly appealing amenity they can use to attract customers. The relative low cost of setting up small wireless networks has, of course, been a great boon to libraries also. After all, libraries, which are not known to be flush with cash or resources, were among the first institutions to set up free wireless network access for patrons. And it seems that more and more businesses are following their lead. Where wireless was once a novelty, particularly in rural areas, I am starting to see the Wi-Fi logo almost everywhere, from truck stops to hair salons to oil-change places.

I would guess that as more and more customers partake of the joys of free wireless access while waiting for their dentist appointments or their oil changes, the wide-ranging disparity among businesses' wireless offerings is bound to even out. Yet, in the wireless arena, it is not just consumer expectations that will determine how we will access and use this technology in the future. Our work, play, communication behaviors, and the wireless devices we use are evolving so quickly that it is hard to tell which of these factors is expanding wireless the most.

Changing Behaviors

As my plane touched down at the end of a recent flight to Chicago, the flight attendant announced, "You may now use cell phones and all other approved electronic devices. …

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