Paying too much for WiFi, 3G? You have options

Aggregators, bundles, new offers can bring out-of-office Internet access under control

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Plus, many employees are buying 3G cellular broadband service and/or WiFi access as individuals, rather than through a departmental or company-wide contract.

"When you look at the discount structure, they could usually have cut those costs in half... but the companies don't know what they're spending," reports Gartner's Paulak. For example, says Paulak, "One company with a roaming workforce with 200 employees in Europe was undercounting their WiFI spend in Europe by about $30,000/month."

No-contract 3G

There are some exceptions to 3G providers requiring contracts

  • Verizon offers its Mobile Broadband DAYPASS, which quickly can cost more than a month of service, but doesn't require a long-term commitment.
  • In September 2009, Virgin Mobile announced its pre-paid, no annual contract Broadband2Go plans, providing access to Sprint's 3G network through a $149 USB adapter, with plans starting at $10 for 100megabytes (expiring in 10 days), and $20, $40 and $60 plans good-for-thirty-day plans for 250MB, 600MB and 1GB respectively. And while pricey per bit, there's no danger of after-the-fact billing surprises: the software tracks usage as you go, and won't let you over-run; you have to "refill" to keep going.
  • Also, iPass, while an on-going commitment, only charges for network service in those calendar months when a given user uses network connectivity.

There may be more low-commitment options, so if you haven't yet signed a contract, you may want to hold off until later in 2009.

"Companies need to look at the costs their business travellers are incurring, especially when you have tens of thousands of employees," says Jonathan Spira.

And quite possibly, even if your company does know these numbers, it might be hard to reduce spending -- not because better solutions aren't available, but because it might require more spending by IT in order to save the overall company significantly more money.

"So much of remote working is managed within the IT department," says Paulak. "The average IT manager today loves it when they can take a known cost in their budget and make it a hidden cost on somebody else's budget. So IT has to make a case that it's good for the company."

Fortunately, there are ways to control and even reduce connectivity costs -- and probably increase productivity and flexibility in the process.

iPhoning home and other ways to connect

In the U.S., mobile broadband data service from carriers typically costs from $30 to $60 per month (separate from or in addition to any voice fees). How much depends on factors including whether it's for a smartphone (and if so, whether "tethering" to let the phone act as a broadband modem for a notebook) or for a notebook, and the amount of data per month (plus any deals, negotiations, bulk discounts, etc.).

The big challenges with carrier plans are that they typically require two-year contracts, and require carrier-specific hardware, making it expensive to switch to a new carrier. (See sidebar: no-contract 3G.)

Another more flexible approach to 3G provisioning is through iPass Inc., which offers access to 3G service, but only charges for those calendar months a user accesses a network. Plus, in the U.S., iPass offers access to two EVDO networks, allowing your company to provision 3G to users for either network, while having only one master contract and related administrative effort. (And a user could be given the USB adapters for both networks -- but if they used both in the same calendar month, they'd be racking up a separate months' charges.)

(More on iPass below.)

Hotspots, the other wireless access

The other leading way that out-of-office employees access the Internet and the company network is through WiFI hotspots -- 802.11 Access Points offering service to the public for free, fee or for authorized users. With WiFI built into every new netbook and notebook, and into a growing number of smartphones and other handheld devices, hotspot use is growing.

3G is convenient -- no need to look for a hotspot, nor worry about the security risks of using an 802.11 wireless (or wired Ethernet) connection that isn't under your company's IT control.

But 3G isn't ubiquitous, not reaching many blocks or businesses, or into a conference room in the middle of a building. In a busy location like an airport terminal or a conference, service may be saturated and slow... and may not be fast enough if, say, you've got to download a 50MB file fast. And if you're travelling out of the country, 3G international and roaming rates can be exorbitant, and provisioning for better or local plans challenging at best.

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