A Gartner Inc. survey of more than 2,000 business travellers in the United States and the United Kingdom revealed that despite the growing availability of Wi-Fi hot spots both in transit and inside transport terminals, only 25 percent of U.S. and 17 percent of U.K. business travellers are taking advantage of the technology. Public Wi-Fi hot spots have been available for several years and makers of laptop PCs have offered built in Wi-Fi radio antennas for the past two. However, Gartner found that users are abstaining from using the technology because of educational, cultural and financial reasons rather than technological apprehension. Nevertheless, Gartner said that Wi-Fi could prove to be a beneficial differentiator in a competitive travel market if these barriers
can be overcome, as they will be less costly for airlines to implement than other in-flight enhancements.

Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, is a radio signal with limited range that allows travellers with specially equipped computers to wirelessly connect to the Internet at high speed. Hotels remain the leading Wi-Fi hot spot locations, with more than 60,000 places across the world. In recent years, wireless data access has also been available on air, rail and sea transport for commuters and business travellers. "Some airlines such as Lufthansa and SAS in Europe and ANA, JAL and Singapore Airlines in Asia are offering wireless Internet access to their passengers but, although the service is accessible, there are a number of technical and business issues that are obstructing growth regardless of the mode of transport," said Delia MacMillan, research vice-president at Gartner.

Survey highlights

Despite the growing availability of the supporting infrastructure and technology, Gartner's survey found that respondents consider in-flight access to the Internet and e-mail less of a priority than comforts such as more personal space, bigger baggage allowance and better entertainment. Additionally 78 percent of U.S. travellers and 75 percent of U.K. travellers said that they would welcome the chance to be out of contact for a while whilst in the air. Even on the ground, 30 percent of U.S. travellers and 32 percent of U.K. travellers said that they have no need to use Wi-Fi hot spots.

"Whilst Wi-Fi has come a long way, our survey shows that many business travellers remain uncertain as to why they should use Wi-Fi, what equipment
they need, how they can connect and what they will be charged," said Ms MacMillan. "If Wi-Fi providers really want to attract new customers they must convince both end users and organisations of its benefits."

Of the 25 percent of U.S. travellers and 17 percent of U.K. travellers who do use hot spots while travelling on business, the respondents were happiest
with the speed of connection, ease of use and overall value. They were least happy with the price of the services and the limited availability of hot spots in useful locations.

"Many organisations will not reimburse their personnel for Wi-Fi access charges, as these fees are often not covered by their telecom contracts. If
airlines can commit to lower prices then the provision of Wi-Fi access could prove a key attraction to business travellers," Ms MacMillan added. Financial issues overweighed worries about security in the survey with only 16 percent of respondents in both countries expressing concerns about
security.

The limited exposure to the technology among business travellers could change as mobile devices with built-in Wi-Fi radio antennas become more widespread. Additionally, Gartner predicts that by the end of 2005, half of the laptop PCs in use will have Wi-Fi capabilities either built-in or added using PC cards.

Given the opportunity to use in-flight connectivity, half of those not currently using Wi-Fi said that they would be interested in sending and receiving e-mail. 68 percent of U.S. travellers and 57 percent of U.K. travellers would be interested in accessing the Internet for purposes other than work. On the ground, two-thirds of the respondents who do use hot spots saw value in connecting to online services via Wi-Fi at least once a day when travelling. "Many respondents currently connect to Wi-Fi hot spots as a way to remain in touch with the office while travelling and make use of 'dead' time when waiting for flights," said Ms MacMillan.

Competitive Challenges

However, Wi-Fi is not the only technology being targeted at business travellers. As problems affecting third generation (3G) roaming, coverage and cost are resolved, Gartner predicts that 3G could become more effective than Wi-Fi for some users who require frequent access to data when travelling in Europe. Additionally, a 3G contract can equate to the cost of just a few hours' access at a commercial Wi-Fi hot spot.

Although pressure from mobile operators who are trying to boost usage of 3G services will force providers of Wi-Fi hot spots to cut their prices, for occasional usage, hotspots are preferable over 3G. "We are already seeing occasional travellers who don't need frequent access to data finding hot spots more cost-effective than a contractual commitment to 3G services. They are also able to find hot spots in places where 3G coverage is unavailable or unreliable," Ms MacMillan said.

Full Wi-Fi enabled services on airplanes have been available for more than a year on some international routes via Connexion by Boeing, which provides Wi-Fi connections to the Internet via satellite. However, airlines using this service are currently only able to access satellite coverage in the Northern Hemisphere.

"On board Wi-Fi has also been used by passengers for voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) calls from planes, although the service is not optimised for this purpose," added Ms MacMillan

Gartner recommendations

Although in-flight Wi-Fi access is very new, Gartner's survey found that it has the potential to be an attractive tool for both entertainment and work. It could also prove to be a good investment in terms of attracting business travellers and become a beneficial differentiator for airlines in a competitive travel market.

"Internet access is potentially much cheaper for airlines to introduce than other items such as more personal space, bigger baggage allowances or better
entertainment," said Ms MacMillan. "Hot spot providers need to encourage usage by ensuring adequate, reliable connectivity and making it simpler for customers to connect and pay."

Gartner recommends that organisations take the following actions:

Providers of public Wi-Fi hot spots

- Make it easier for customers to connect and offer a variety of corporate payment and billing options.

- Beware of the quality-of-services issues that VoIP services are likely to raise.

Companies

- Develop policies for the use of Wi-Fi hot spots. Educate users about security, billing issues and about preferred providers.

- Assess the relative merits of 3G services and Wi-Fi hot spots for remote access and formulate policies for using them.

Regulators

- Address the issue of in-flight VoIP services while discussing cellular voice usage.