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Universal Connectivity – Not There Yet or Wrong Business Model?

Taking my chances with the uncertainties of air transport and Transportation Security Administration, I take my laptop everywhere I go. And it is terribly frustrating when connectivity is absent, or worse, sporadic. It was sporadic a couple of weeks ago at the Eclipse member's meeting in Dallas, where it was necessary to sit in a certain part of the Omni hotel lobby to assure connectivity. A couple of years ago at the Washington (DC) Hilton, room access didn't work at all, but it was possible to connect to unprotected wireless networks in an apartment building across the street (not that I am advocating doing so).

Yet free connectivity, or even connectivity that is reasonably priced for an appropriate range and time period, is sorely lacking. You have to stand in a particular place, stay at a particular place, or buy a particular brand of coffee, in order to get access.

There are two possible ways of viewing this trend. First, the network is filling out slowly and in spots, and it is only a matter of time before we are able to move seamlessly between Starbucks (I dislike coffee, so that is a nonstarter for me) to the Marriott Courtyard to the Northwest WorldClub at Minneapolis Airport without losing a signal.

But another way of looking at it is that we have the wrong model to begin with. The network will never fill out, because there are not enough commercial entities with a desire or business rationale to make it happen. And for those networks that make the attempt, the cost will be both prohibitive and fragmented across multiple non-communicating network providers.

You might argue that digital cellular networks actually accomplish the task of providing a single network across significant distances and at one cost. I think that the model of the cellular providers is one that might work, with an additional feature. Let me explain. I subscribe to one of the minor cellular carriers for voice (United States Cellular, which happens to provide exceptional coverage in my home state). US Cellular does not have a large national network, so it has exchange agreements with major providers all over the country. The net result is that I get 800 anytime minutes a month anywhere in the country for $50 (plus the various taxes and fees).

I would jump at a similar plan for wireless Internet access. This seems in no danger of happening anytime soon, however.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 10/23/2006 at 1:15 PM

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