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Unwired: Welcome to our LAN

More and more companies helping visitors get online
Written by Richard Leyland, Contributor

More and more companies helping visitors get online

With the number of on-the-go knowledge workers on the rise, it's only natural organisations are changing the way they think about their wireless networks. Unwired's Richard Leyland has the latest.

What is the next wireless revolution? Voice over wi-fi? WiMax? Machine-to-machine?

How about a suggestion you haven't considered? It's the wireless industry's best kept secret: wi-fi visitor networks. These are wi-fi zones which allow visitors to a building to connect to the internet, on a completely separate network to the corporate wireless LAN, or WLAN. Wi-fi visitor networks are different to conventional wireless hotspots in that they're offered as a benefit for esteemed visitors and operate with some degree of authentication and control (with wi-fi hotspots, if you can pay, you can play).

It's leading to a new paradigm where in addition to an organisation's enterprise WLAN for trusted staff and managed by the IT team, there is a separate semi-public authenticated network for untrusted users which is managed by a service provider and often free to use.

Most organisations shy away from giving even temporary corporate WLAN access to visitors, citing legitimate concerns such as security, breach of regulations and additional workload for the IT staff. Now several high-profile names are experimenting with wi-fi visitor networks and 2007 looks like the year that the concept will take off.

So what is driving this growth?

At the broadest level, we're moving towards a knowledge economy, and creating a new breed of knowledge workers for whom information is both the currency and product. Knowledge workers are highly mobile and are supported by technology (wi-fi, VoIP, Bluetooth) and toys (laptop, BlackBerry, mobile phone). They work across a range of locations, are highly collaborative, are often rewarded on results rather than time - and will be online as long as today's patchy, costly urban connectivity will allow.

The next key driver for visitor networks is the changing composition of the workforce. Most of us aren't full-time company employees. Current estimates are that only around one-third of the workforce are company employees, while one-third are outsourced contractors in some form and the final third are professional advisors or freelancers.

This means two in three workers are at least one degree removed from the corporate space in which they work and disconnected from the corporate network. To ensure maximum productivity from these workers, companies must provide adequate facilities when they visit their offices i.e. spaces where they can meet with colleagues and connect to the WLAN or the internet from their portable devices.

Office buildings usually have both public and private spaces but often have only a private network. The public space - reception or a café - is very often designed for ad-hoc meetings and to provide a welcoming, attractive public face but only when that space is connected does it serve much use to consultants and the like. More than this, clients and visitors to organisations increasingly expect to be online either to deliver presentations or to connect to online tools to remain productive throughout the day.

Outside of the corporate enterprise, many subscription-based organisations or professional bodies have semi-public 'clubhouse' style spaces for their members. Such spaces embody the flexibility of work in the knowledge economy, and here a visitor network can be an extremely valuable member benefit. Pioneers in this area include the Chartered Institute of Professional Development and the Institute of Directors, both in London.

Business realise they must start to open up their wireless networks. In a recent survey by researcher Webtorials, 80 per cent of respondents have or are currently deploying a WLAN and an impressive 77 per cent of respondents said guest access is a primary use of wi-fi now, or is planned to be within the next 12 months.

Beyond this, a report from Synergy Research Group, published in November 2006, found that the overall corporate WLAN market is being driven by demand for applications such as voice over wi-fi, guest-access networks and location services.

One example of this idea in action is global real estate adviser Cushman & Wakefield, which has implemented a wi-fi visitor network in its European headquarters in Portman Square, London. The network extends throughout the offices, so clients and visitors can get online during meetings. They are encouraged to make use of a specially designed 'hub' area adjacent to reception for relaxed meetings or emailing - they simply request a username and password from reception which lasts for a specific duration. The response has been universally positive.

It's not just the client who benefits. The visitor network provides Cushman & Wakefield with a branded portal through which clients access the internet - and which provides a new way of communicating with clients, prospects and visitors. The network is managed by the service provider Building Zones. As their MD, George Bartley, described it to me: "The branded portal means they can post key information, such as links to the website, press releases, events, and any other messages they want to get across."

Looking forward, a secondary visitor network can open up a world of innovative applications - from CCTV to digital media for advertisers.

The conditions are right, the technology is in place, the experts agree and the early adopters are enthused: wi-fi visitor networks are coming in 2007.

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