Paying too much for WiFi, 3G? You have options
Aggregators, bundles, new offers can bring out-of-office Internet access under control
Wired or wireless broadband-speed Internet access is the norm in most offices these days. But increasingly, that's not where people are when they read and send email, use web sites or access the company network. Some are using notebooks or netbooks; others, Apple iPhones and iPod Touches, BlackBerries, and other smartphones and PDAs that pack much of the power -- and network demands -- of a notebook into a pocket-sized device.
"40% of knowledge workers work in non-traditional environments several days a week," states Jonathan Spira, Chief Analyst, Basex Inc. "And that means that in many cases they are looking for Internet access outside of the corporate network."
"Over 60% of our user base is mobile," says Daniel Little, Director, Customer Support at the Hay Group. "We have over 2,600 employees working in 85 offices in 47 countries. It's not uncommon for our consultants to be out of the office for weeks at a time, at client sites. Meanwhile they have to be connected to their other clients, so we needed a cost-effective way to maintain connectivity."
And travellers aren't the only ones seeking and using Internet access outside the office or home.
A survey by JiWire, Inc., which maintains an interactive online directory of publicly-available (for free or fee) WiFi hotspots, found that "80% people using public cafe WiFI aren't college students or travelling business users but the opposite: people in their local market who also have an office or home Internet access," says David Staas, Senior Vice President of Marketing at JiWire, Inc.
Companies are spending about six billion dollars annually in remote access -- of which about half could be avoided
These aren't brief check-email-over-a-quick-cup-of-coffee sessions, either. JiWire's survey found that 85% of people in cafes say they connect once or more per week, 68% for at least one hour, 22% for at least two hours... and 67% are 25 to 49 years old, and split nearly evenly between SMBs and enterprises -- about 44% were from companies with under 100 employees.
"This means that IT professionals have to factor in, and provide, a 'third location' besides office and home," says JiWire's Staas, not only in terms of budget but also authentication and security.
The unnecessarily high costs of remote access
If your company is like most, not only do you need to support this 'third location' access to the Internet (including VPNing back to the company network) -- but you're probably paying way too much for it.
According to Eric Paulak, Vice President, Telecommunication Services, Gartner, Inc., companies are spending about six billion dollars annually in remote access -- of which about half could be avoided.
Not only that, unless your company is relatively small (or even just you), you don't know how much is being spent on out-of-office access.
"About 70% of all remote connectivity expenses are buried in expense reports," says Paulak. For example, employees may itemize fees for use of WiFI hotspots at airports... or lump them in as miscellaneous. Similarly, per-day use of hotel WiFi and Ethernet may be itemized on the hotel bill, but not appear as a discrete a line item in an expense report.
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."
"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.
In cases like these, it's WiFI to the rescue, if you can find it nearby.
As of mid-September 2009, WiFi directory JiWire listed over 280,000 hotspots worldwide. Many hotspots are at individual businesses, as a service to customers. For example, Direct Tire & Auto Service, the Boston-area car repair shop where I've been bringing my car for service for over two decades has free WiFI in its waiting area for customers at all four of its locations. StarBucks, Panera Bread, and McDonald's offer WiFI; ditto Barnes & Noble bookstores, along with airports, hotels, train stations, libraries, intercity buses like BoltBus, LimoLiner and MegaBus, as well as some commuter rail and even some commuter ferries.
About 19% of hotspots are free, according to JiWire. The rest aren't.
As any attentive traveler knows, buying access to WiFI hotspots (or hotel Ethernet) can quickly add up. Per-session/day rates of $3-$10 or more are typical in the United States, more like $20 in Europe and other parts of the world. So you could easily rack up $30 to $50 of WiFI expenses in one day.
"It's becoming an issue, when people spend the equivalent of a night's stay at a hotel just for Internet access," says Basex's Spira. "More companies are now looking at this issue, rather than telling employees, 'attach somehow to the Internet.'"
For anyone away from the company or home network, that $30-60/month for 3G service (in the United States) quickly looks like a compelling deal... as long as the service is available where you need it... or unless you can access hotspots less expensively.
Better WiFi deals, thanks to bundlers and aggregators
What many people don't know is that there are ways to access hotspots more affordably.
First, many of the wired and wireless broadband carriers are offering free use of selected WiFi hotspots.
AT&T, for example, is bundling its "AT&T WiFi Basic" service for free to qualifying wired and wireless broadband customers; Verizon is bundling in access (www.verizon.net/hotspots,looks like around 15,000 hotspots around the U.S.) for its higher-speed FIOS and DSL users.
AT&T Wireless is particularly motivated to get its customers to use hotspots for data activity, since 3G data traffic from iPhones has been growing significantly; the more traffic AT&T can divert to WiFi, the less the strain on their 3G network.
However, even these bundles may not include access to hotspots where you will be -- or you may be with a different carrier or on a plan that doesn't include hotspot access.
Fortunately, there's yet one more option for affordable hotspot access, for consumers/single-users, SMBs and enterprises. (See sidebar: Testing Aggregated Access).
Many hotspots are likely to be available through multiple carriers and aggregators. "The carriers typically have between 85,000 and 110,000 hotspots," notes Kathryn Weldon. Principal Analyst, Enterprise Mobility, at Current Analysis. "This isn't surprising, since all the carriers are using the same partners."
Boingo - WiFI Aggregated Affordably
Boingo Wireless, Inc. aggregates and provides access to WiFI hot spots (see http://boingo.jiwire.com), including from AT&T, Wayport, iBahn, T-Mobile, BT Openzone, Orange France, Livedoor, Singtel, Telmex, Pronto, HubTelecom, Vex, Attingo, Bell Mobility, Net Near U, StayOnline, and Kubi Wireless.
As of September 2009, Boingo access includes "100,000+ hotspots around the world... more than 500+ airports, 20,000+ hotels, and 25,000+ cafes and restaurants around the world, including more than 14,000+ McDonald's restaurants."
Boingo's current single-user plans/prices are Boingo Unlimited (Americas) $9.95/month and Boingo Global (worldwide) $59.95/month -- Boingo's notebook software runs Windows XP and Vista, and (some) Macs -- and Boingo Mobile (for smartphones, including iPhone/iPod Touch, Nokia S60, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry, for U.S. and 70+ other countries), $7.95/month, plus some "As You Go" day rates. Additionally, Boingo offers Boingo Unlimited Group for consolidated billing, and Enterprise Edition plans, generally through partners.
If you've already got 3G service, or don't want it, Boingo is a compelling option. Given current hotspot prices, a Boingo account will pay for itself if you need to buy access even one to two times a month.
Unlike 3G usage, which is keyed to the device or adapter, Boingo use is per-user, not tied to a specific laptop. (Boingo is looking into an account and pricing by device -- if, for example, you're packing an iPod Touch and a netbook.)
Most Boingo partner networks have a 'roaming' login link -- a Universal Access Method, UAM -- so in case you're on a machine that doesn't have the Boingo client installed, you should be able to login via the web page.
iPass, For When You Also Want 3G And/Or Value-Added Services
iPass Inc., which Internet veterans may remember from the mid-90s as a dial-up aggregator, is aimed more at SMBs and enterprises -- particularly global ones. The company says its user base includes "3,500 enterprise and 400 Global 2000 firms." (iPass does offer single-user plans, through some of its resellers.
iPass aggregates/resells not only 3G and WiFi access, but also wired-Ethernet and also dial-up (which some, although fewer each year, still use, according to iPass).
iPass currently offers access to around 140,000 hotspots worldwide, including about 30,000 in the United States, and 60,000 in Europe. This includes hotspots associated with AT&T and T-Mobile, and at locations like StarBucks, McDonald's and Barnes & Noble, plus at airports, hotels, transit stations; and trains.
By using iPass, "We've reduced or eliminated the use of day pass access," reports Hay Group's Little. "The biggest issue was eliminating or reducing WiFi costs in hotels."
For anyone debating between iPass and Boingo, hotspot locations aren't likely to drive the decision. According to a Boingo spokesperson, "There isn't a very big difference between Boingo and iPass in the U.S. regarding hotspot coverage. There are more international examples -- Bell Canada, Telefonica, etc., where Boingo has roaming rights and iPass doesn't."
The big differentiators are iPass's additional networks, and IT/value-added services. iPass also offers 3G services in nine countries including the United States, plus wired-Ethernet, dial-up and other access. Additionally, iPass includes access to 2,500 Ethernet-accessed hotels, and around 24,000 dial access numbers across 165 countries.
For Americas-only travellers seeking only WiFi, Boingo is less expensive. But for a fleet of international users, iPass's billed-only-in-months-accessed approach -- plus access to 3G and other networks in the same fee -- may shift decision points.
"This gives the IT manager the freedom to deploy the software to everyone, you only get charged when you use the software and/or the network, and network use is flat rate, no worry about overrun charges," says Piero DePaoli, Senior Director, Global Product Marketing, iPass Inc. "Typically, in a large organization, with 1,000 people, we might see 250 people use it per month, some different users from month to month."
(iPass will charge a nominal fee of somewhere between $1-5 per month if you use its software to access a non-iPass network, e.g. your company or home WiFi.)
Beyond controlling, reducing remote access costs
Access to international hotspots is a big selling point. The high costs of international roaming for voice and data have come as big surprises to many users; WiFi access can save hundreds, even thousands of dollars per user. Even for users already committed to WiFi, given international hot spot rates of around twenty dollars a day, an iPass or Boingo account means savings even for just a few accesses. Using fixed-rate WiFi instead of international roaming rates for 3G and the savings are likely be even more substantial.
For companies already using or willing to adopt VoIP, there's further spending-throttlers: using VoIP instead of cell phones. If you've tried researching "how do I use a cell phone in other countries," you've probably discovered it's an aggravating mix of expensive and complicated. VoIPing, where an option, can bypass much of this.
"They all use the same WiFi partners, so look at what they do on the client, administrative, security and other services (e.g. backup and restore) and whether they support the devices/environments you're using," says Current Analysis' Weldon. "So it's 'which will integrate with my authentication and security environment.'"
iPass' appeal isn't just access aggregation and cost savings; the company iPass also offers authentication, VPN and other services, including integration with Cisco, Checkpoint, Microsoft, Juniper and other VPN providers, "so getting onto the corporate VPN is simple and easy, it looks like a single login," says iPass's DePaoli. iPass resellers offer additional features, such as the NetMotion Wireless' Mobile VPN through iRoam Mobile Solutions, which can maintain a persistent connection when a network connection goes down.
The biggest challenges for most companies is understanding that overspending on remote access is real and how much money this represents -- and that there are solutions, and how much these may save.
The biggest challenge for IT is being willing to take on the responsibility, in order to save money. One way to avoid access costs becoming part of IT's budget is to charge them back to users' departments.
To a large extent, selection is likely to be driven by where a company is headquartered, Current Analysis' Weldon says. "It's hard for a global carrier to compete with domestic carriers for 3G." And, Weldon suggests, "If you're already a customer with a carrier, you should see what they offer and what discounts you have for adding on these services, since that will probably be your best deal. For internationally, look at other companies, of course."
"Almost any research or service will be better than pay as you go. The more that IT can bring this in house, the better," says Amy Cravens, a contributing analyst for In-Stat. "Most users are expensing WiFI as they go."