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Hotspot Hot Air?

Hotspot provider says WiFi will change workplace culture but others are not convinced.

Fancy taking business to a cafi, sipping a latte while clinching a major business deal?

According to new hotspot provider, Xone, wireless makes business on the road a reality. The company this week launched what they claim is the largest retail wireless broadband Internet zone in Australia in North Sydney.

Xone believes that just as mobile telephones transformed telecommunications, wireless Internet is dramatically altering workplace culture.

"By simply inserting a small 'card' into the side of a laptop and heading to a 'Xone' in cafes, restaurants and shopping centres, workers can easily gain access to secure, high-speed Internet outside the office. This means people can, literally, take their offices with them to conduct business in a relaxed, informal atmosphere, while remaining in constant contact with clients and colleagues."

Paul Budde, telecommunications analyst, is not convinced. "The wireless office concept has been around since the late 1980s, namely DECT. It has never delivered on its promises for a number of reasons. These include costs, reliability and lack of standards. Finally, the major challenge is replace existing systems, such as Local Area Networks (LAN). Often, that means you can't replace it, and it becomes a question of another cost for what reason?"

"This situation is not changing because of WiFi," he continues. "Yes some offices will take it up as it fits their particular situation but the majority of offices are using LAN networks that are perfectly all right for the work they are doing."

"We're not pitching ourselves as the universal solution to everything," Paul Pettersen, Xone's CEO, responds. "But we're pretty confident we'll attract enough people to have a sustainable business model. We're about workplace culture. A large number of employees and the tasks required, such as sales people working face-to-face with clients, are choosing to conduct business somewhere other than the office. That includes coffee shops."

He says a number of companies encourage staff to take their business out of the office. Clients are more receptive, it keeps costs down, less people are at desks and less office space is required. "That shift in workplace culture is already happening," he adds. Xone are tapping into wireless growth to facilitate that change.

Budde agrees the technology, both hardware and software, is adequate to facilitate that shift in the workplace. However, "there are reliability and security problems. They can be fixed but often at a cost. Feedback from management consultancy companies who travel extensively, as one example, have mentioned security is still a concern."

"What has changed," says Pettersen, "is the devices themselves. They are beginning to commoditise. Prices are coming down. Intel is soon to include WiFi on the main processor chip, Nokia and Siemens are going to include Bluetooth in every mobile phone. All people will have the technology and companies are committed."

He mentions the technology may be a combination of GRPS, WiFi on a laptop or any other wireless-enabled device. "Mobile technologies improve productivity and work life, there is no dispute about that. Intel, as one example, has improved productivity by twenty percent after each sales rep was issued with a laptop. They also have greater job satisfaction. That's the same for companies who provide broadband at home for employees, which enables them to be more flexible in their job."

Pettersen acknowledges, however, the technology is not useful for certain positions that require people to be in the office. "We're offering a service that does not exist," he says, so Xone is not trying to replace an already functional system.

"Concerns about security," Pettersen concludes, "originate from corporate LANs. While extolling the benefits of LANs, sales representatives failed to inform clients of the security risks. Being wireless-enabled to the net, you do need to be circumspect. But our system has a 128-bit encryption system that nobody has figured out how to crack in real-time. This is different to WEP security standard in 802.11b. Finally, the level of security is modified according to the environment. Logging into a bank site, for example, the encryption extends to the laptop."

"Great technology for certain niche markets but no large scale infrastructure deployments," Budde concludes.

Xone plan to deploy up to forty access points around the country by the end of the year.