by Carl D. Holcombe on Monday, Dec. 15, 2003 12:00 am
Laptop computers open at tables. Coffee drinkers busily surfing the Internet, moving from table to table without worrying about annoying cables or wires.
The café is almost three months into its experiment as a free "hot spot" for the wireless Internet access known as Wi-Fi. And so far the wireless technology that is webbing up urban centers across the country is paying dividends as it slowly reaches into Arkansas.
"It's really taken off; I've been amazed," Newbern said. "If you come in right now there are four people using it, and sometimes there are 10. It depends on the time of day.
"All I can say is that I'm seeing a lot of new faces and sales are better this month than this month last year ... It's kind of a coffeehouse thing."
Wi-Fi, aka wireless fidelity, a high-speed connection to the Internet without wires and cables, is often found inside airports, cafés, businesses, public buildings and universities across the country.
It arrived in the state this year and is still in its infancy here. Wi-Fi has cropped up at a handful of locations, and its availability across the state is bound to grow. Last week, for instance, the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission voted to begin negotiating with SBC Communica-tions Inc. for terminal-wide Wi-Fi service at Little Rock National Airport.
"There are great opportunities," said Ted Wagnon, a spokesman for SBC, which has a three-year plan for 20,000 throughout its 13-state service area. "We're very excited about it, to bring a new service to customers and to compete in the market and gain new customers.
"Access to essential business information while you're on the go is extremely valuable to the business community."
Gartner Inc., a global research firm based in Stamford, Conn., estimated about 4.7 million people in North America will use hot spots in 2003 and that about 99 million people will have Wi-Fi-enabled computers by 2006.
By 2007, there will be about 31 million Wi-Fi users.
Already, several Web sites — www.jiwire.com, www.ezgoal.com/ hot-spots, and www.WiFifreespots.com, to name three — allow searches for hot spots across the country.
A Wi-Fi craze, though, may take a while to hit.
"It's not necessarily (an investment) bubble yet," said Phillip Redman, a Gartner analyst. "It hasn't reached that point, with the money and the hype of the dot-com (era)."
One of the first hot spot venues in Arkansas was at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, which launched Wi-Fi service in April.
The presence of some of Arkansas' largest companies — Wal-Mart Stores Inc., J.B. Hunt Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. — helped drive Wi-Fi's development there. The airport has about 400,000 boardings annually and, depending on the time of year, 60-80 percent are business travelers likely to benefit from Wi-Fi.
"It's been accepted fairly well," said Mark Mellinger, assistant airport director. "We have a large business community of travelers out of the airport here."
Currently, the airport's Wi-Fi services are provided by Tantella Wireless Services, which beams its connection from about 10 miles away, Mellinger said. There are two access points, similar to transmitters, at the 78,000-SF terminal building, and service is currently limited to gate areas.
Wi-Fi's limited range will increase in January, as the local airport commission finalizes negotiations with SBC to join Tantella and extend the range through the entire facility.
The service costs the airport nothing. But Tantella, and soon SBC, pays a small amount of rent and a 5 percent commission on revenue. It doesn't add up to much for 2003 — about $300 in commission and in $430 rent — but SBC's 2004 arrival could double that. And it seems likely to increase over the years.
SBC will earn revenue by charging non-SBC Internet subscribers subscription fees — from a few dollars a day to bigger monthly fees. But roaming agreements with other providers will decrease those fees and allow customers to use different carriers. Their own carrier will pay the short-term carrier.
Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. is launching a plan to bring broadband to rural Arkansas, said Doug White, vice president of corporate services.
A partnership with the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative and telecommunications firm WildBlue Inc. will see twin telecommunications satellites launched in early 2004 to provide dish-based, high-speed Internet connections in 2005.
AECC will provide billing, installation and administrative services and has a potential customer base of 450,000 people, White said. Revenue projections are in the high six-figures to low seven-figures range, he said.
"They realized that their target audience was the same as our customer base — rural customers in sparsely populated areas," White said.
So far, the Clay and Ouachita county electric cooperatives have signed on.
SBC may have a leg up on other Wi-Fi providers in Arkansas. Its proposal for the Little Rock Airport beat out proposals from Sprint, Opti-Fi and Airport Network Solutions.
"These days all the airports are going wireless," Pat Sellars, airport maintenance director. "To not do it would leave us in the Dark Ages.
"A lot of travelers are business travelers, so we have a lot of laptops that go through here. You can't buy a laptop these days that isn't ready for wireless."
SBC offered a guaranteed annual payment of almost $6,000, an 80-cent per walk-up customer fee and two other free hot spots in Little Rock at the airport commission's discretion, according to Larry Lichty, an airport commissioner.
"We looked at this as more of (providing) a service than a revenue producer," Lichty said. "That's more important than anything. It will broaden public use; all major airports will have it ... It lends itself to improving the experience for the traveling public."
SBC and airport officials are uncertain when Wi-Fi will be up and running because a contract has yet to be signed. Sellars said that it could take 30 days to draw up and sign a contract and 45-55 days from contract to complete installation of seven to nine access points along with spectrum studies to detect any airport signal conflicts. March, then, is probably the earliest possible date for wireless Internet access at Adams Field.
It will be a T-1 connection, with speed optimally of about 1.44 MB — but traffic, old wires, will likely impact that. SBC will provide backbone access to the Internet and cover installation and maintenance expenses at the airport.
"From an Arkansas perspective, both airports are very important for us," SBC's Wagnon said. "We're certainly very interested in adding hot spots in Little Rock and Arkansas."
SBC will target hotels, convention centers, colleges, industrial parks and other facilities for its Wi-Fi services.
"In the next five years, any wireless provider will have a roaming agreement with every other wireless provider," Sellars said.
Travelers would most likely access a joint Little Rock National Airport-SBC introductory page to register and allow for more Arkansas and Little Rock marketing and potentially more advertising revenue opportunities.
Rebecca Morrison, a spokeswoman for the Wireless Airport Association, said nearly 30 airports nationwide have Wi-Fi. It's also allowed travelers easier check ins.
So far, downtown Little Rock property managers haven't gone Wi-Fi.
Jeff Yates of Flake & Kelley Commercial, which manages TCBY Tower and other Little Rock properties, said none have gone Wi-Fi.
"It's being examined, but we don't have a big demand for it right now," Yates said. "It's new, and we're waiting to see what the demand will be ... As it gains in popularity, we'll gauge the timing and the demand for Wi-Fi."
But even small facilities are showing an interest in Wi-Fi.
The Athletic Club of Jonesboro's members may soon be sweating to the tune of Wi-Fi.
Chad Harting, director of operations at the club, said two weeks of Wi-Fi experimenting starting late November was encouraging for both employees and exercisers. Harting and managers can check the club's network and files with laptops as they wander through the facility.
Club members, while resting after a workout or preparing to eat the club's café, can use online tools for a friendly dietary and supplement reminder in a less harsh environment.
"Before, we had to drag them into the office, and we huddled around the desk behind the machine," Harting said. "Now, we can let them sip on a shake at the juice bar and we'll bring it to their table. We just needed the freedom of floating around the club and bringing things to people."
Web access is free.
Sufficient Grounds has three access points and a high-speed business connection costing about $90 a month. It may create a new Little Rock café culture.
"We're a 2,800-SF café; we don't have to hustle people out," co-owner Newbern said. "Some people sit here all day surfing the Web and have a few cups of coffee. Some are here for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can even surf from the deck.
"We had a customer drive by saying they were in a real hurry to send an e-mail and came by the parking lot just to send e-mail."
Wi-Fi isn't limited to businesses and public places.
Alltel Corp. of Little Rock has made an aggressive effort to extend Wi-Fi to its residential DSL customers. And equipment can be purchased at a number of retail stores.
DSL connections come into a residence via wireline connections. From there, they're fed through an access point or transmitter, and Wi-Fi-enabled laptops, desktops and PDAs can access the Internet. Equipment costs less than $200.
Austin Herrington, an Alltel spokesman, said 7-10 percent of the company's roughly 147,000 DSL customers have some form of home networking.
"It is absolutely a growing trend to provide Wi-Fi home networking," Herrington said.
Besides Wi-Fi, Alltel customers can also choose a powerline connection, which allows computers to access the Internet through any electric power socket in a home. Converters and other equipment cost less than $300.
WiFi Hot Spots in Arkansas
•?William F. Laman Public Library
2801 Orange St., North Little Rock
•?University of Central Arkansas
201 Donaghey Ave., Conway
•?Athletic Club of Jonesboro
2617 Phillips Drive, Jonesboro
•?Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport
1 Airport Way, Bentonville
•?Sufficient Grounds Coffee House
722 N. Palm St., Little Rock
•?Kennedy Coffee Roasting Co.
2501 S.E. 14th St., Suite 1
•?The Comfort Inn & Suites
209 W. Commerce Drive, Bryant
•?Hampton Inn (in guest rooms)
735 S. Shiloh Drive, Fayetteville
•?Days Inn (in guest rooms)
4677 W. Sunset Ave., Springdale
Source: ezgoal.com, jiwire.com, wififreespots.com
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