Barriers exist to business traveler Wi-Fi use

A Gartner Inc. study cited educational, cultural and financial reasons for what it concludes is a low rate of Wi-Fi hotspot use among business travelers. With more than 60,000 hotspots around the globe, 25 percent of U.S. and 17 percent of U.K. business travelers use hotspots, the study found.

"If you look at a smaller segment of the audience, like the business traveler, the expectation is that there'd be more traction in that group as opposed to the entire population, where you'd expect it to be a small percentage," said Delia MacMillan, a research vice president at Gartner and the report's author. The take-up rate isn't necessarily bad or disappointing, but indicates that the Wi-Fi market might still be early in its evolution, despite what some company marketing materials might suggest, she said.

Some hotspot operators may find Gartner's results encouraging. "What the report is saying is that half of the people who have Wi-Fi in their laptops use it, which is pretty good," said Alex French, director of operations at Bitbuzz Ltd., a hotspot operator in Ireland. Gartner expects that by the end of this year, half of all laptops in use will have Wi-Fi either built in or available via a PC card. That means that today, about half the users of laptops with Wi-Fi capabilities in the U.S. are accessing hotspots.

Laptop makers started building Wi-Fi into their products about two years ago. The replacement cycle for laptops is about three years, French said. "As that kicks in, we'll see a higher and higher proportion of laptops that are Wi-Fi enabled in use," he said.

The Gartner study also found that companies often won't pay for Wi-Fi charges because Wi-Fi may not be included in their contracts with telecom providers. Generally, financial issues were more important to business travelers than security, the study found.

"At the moment, the payment methods available can make it more difficult for users to expense them," French said. Hotspot operators are beginning to address some of the billing issues that business customers might have. For example, Bitbuzz has a partnership with Vodafone Group PLC where customers can add their Bitbuzz hotspot charges onto their regular Vodafone mobile phone bills. "That makes it easier for them to expense Wi-Fi," French said.

Also, it's becoming increasingly common for hotspot operators and hotels to allow their customers to include Wi-Fi charges on their hotel bills. That can make it easier for some travelers to expense the Wi-Fi connection, as compared to paying for Wi-Fi separately on a credit card. Bitbuzz has seen a gradual progression this year away from separate payment in hotels to customers choosing to include the Wi-Fi charge on their hotel bill, French said.

Any sort of flexibility in billing and payment methods ought to be significantly beneficial in encouraging business travelers to use hotspots, MacMillan said. "Any flexibility in usage or charging is sorely needed and will increase uptake," she said.

Increased awareness of Wi-Fi should also help, not only in making hotspots more acceptable for end users but also for IT departments. Currently, many IT departments are simply banning the use of hotspots because they haven't been able to formulate a company policy for how workers should be allowed to use them. As hotspots become more widespread and used, IT departments should begin to create internal policies for how mobile workers can use them, MacMillan said.

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