Fries with your broadband?

Even in big cities it can be a heck of a lot easier to find a Big Mac than it can be to find a wireless hotspot.

commentary Even in big cities it can be a heck of a lot easier to find a Big Mac than it can be to find a wireless hotspot.

I'm beginning to think that the "hot" in wireless hotspot stands for "hot and bothered trying to find one". You can understand, when having a beer at a country pub, with a handful of houses visible in the distance, the technical and commercial challenges of getting broadband to rural Australia. In comparison, city-dwellers can't complain too much about the available options for fast Internet access.

You would think that the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre makes an ideal spot for wireless coverage. Lots of business people, with notebooks. Nope.
However, I'm still going to complain. For a city that prides itself as being international, the availability of broadband access spots in Sydney is still very limiting. You would think that the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre makes an ideal spot for wireless coverage -- lots of business people, all walking around with notebooks. Nope, no coverage there. In fact, just one building around the Darling Harbour area offers wireless. About the only areas that you can be guaranteed access to check your e-mail -- although some personal roaming may be required to find coverage -- are most major airports.

In fact, Sydney has only 113 hotspots available through iPass, the largest provider of remote access. (I'll use iPass as a proxy for comparing the number of hotspots in different areas.) Melbourne, by comparison, has 197. That's not far short of New York's 258 locations. There are numerous Melbourne cafes that have incorporated wireless access their "value proposition".

In the same vein as the rather arbitrary "most liveable city" award that seems to move around the world each year, I propose an international "Hotspot Index". Easily calculated by dividing the number of people in a city/country by the number of hotspots, it would provide a much more useful ranking of "liveability". After all, what can be more important than the ease of finding somewhere to check e-mail or browse the Web between meetings?

So, on the new Hotspot Index, Sydney comes in at 36,000 people per hotspot. Melbourne, a more favourable 26,243. Overall Australia, comes in at 42,850 people per hotspot. The US is slightly ahead at 38,632. The UK is an even better place to check your e-mail -- you're only competing with 22,963 people for each wireless access point. Hong Kong is at 19,654 and Singapore at 12,604 lead the Asia region -- with their population density, they tend to offer e-mail-addicted people a ready fix. At the other end of the scale, China has 1.2 million people per 10 of its hotspots. Writing a postcard may be a better option.

There's also the vexing question of where these hotspots are placed. In the lobby of large companies is always useful; being early for a meeting gives you time to catch up on e-mail.

Unfortunately, with a few exceptions you won't have much luck. Cafes are increasingly offering wireless access to attract customers, or to keep them there longer. Airports, of course, have long recognised the potential of a captive audience of business travellers. More than 6600 hotels offer broadband, which is about 40 percent of iPass' broadband access spots -- personally, I can't understand how any hotel targeting business travellers can afford not to provide the option of broadband. Interestingly, over 920 McDonalds restaurants have a wireless access -- checking e-mail over a Big Mac is more common than I suspected.

So, maybe I'm the only one frustrated by the not-quite-there-yet promise of working anywhere, anytime with wireless broadband. Unless you live in Singapore and enjoy Big Macs.

Oliver Descoeudres is marketing manager at network IP/Internet network infrastructure builder and solutions provider NetStar Australia. He can be contacted at or on 02 9805 9759.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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