Whats Worse Than No WiFi?

What's worse than no WiFi? WiFi that's there but doesn't work properly. Too much more of that, and the industry goes into reverse.

Trapeze Networks new chief executive officer, Jim Vogt, thinks a product called Ringmaster is one of his prize assets. Id agree. I think he ought to give it away.

Well, if youre the typical business user in the United States, you may well not be an international jet-setter, and you will not know how awful it is to try to cover the German IT trade fair, CeBIT, in Hannover. And you may treasure your time away from the office as an opportunity to avoid the Internet. But for those who have to travel a lot, each hotel brings a new nightmare of trying to get online and get e-mail.

Hence, of course, the runaway success of BlackBerry handhelds, but also the growing sense among hotel managers that providing wireless broadband is a service youre better off failing to offer.

Key to the new, corporate awareness of wireless, especially in Europe, is the realization that it aint easy. And key to the pitch Id make, if I were Trapeze, is that Ringmaster is not just a site survey tool, but also a network admin tool.

At a recent seminar in Barcelona, Spain, I found myself dialing a local, "free" Internet provider, Wannadoo. The password was "gratis," which was a joke. The Meridien hotel is a top-rank hotel that charges top-rank prices for outgoing phone calls, and Wannadoo is a premium phone number. At the end of a week, my bill ran to more zeros than the typical box score of the 1962 New York Mets. I was, as they say, seriously vexed.

But at the same time, my experiences with hotels that do provide wireless broadband suggest that their managers are likely to wish they had not tried.

Broadband in hotels ought to be so darn simple: an RJ socket on the table and a flat fee on the bill! And wireless should be just as simple: Register your room number, and the system thereafter recognizes your MAC address and bills you in the same way. Well, so it is— simple, that is, but youll find that wireless coverage depends very much on where you sit.

In one memorable hotel, I found I could get a good WLAN signal in the bar, but otherwise nowhere at all. In another, the huge atrium, all 25 floors, had an excellent signal, but when you went into your room, the solid, metal doors were more than equal to the task of screening it out. And of course, every user who came equipped with wireless gear expected it to work. And when it didnt, the business center manager had to work overtime and the complaints went up.

Pleasanton, Calif.-based Trapeze is an exciting startup that is playing catch-up in a market where Airespace Inc. has a noticeable lead, making it possible for IT managers to install wireless without having to ask for two new IT staffers. Both companies are strutting their stuff in Hannover this week, announcing new customers, new technologies and new alliances.

Fortunately, enough has been written about the technology involved in these WLAN management systems that I dont have to try to convince you of the virtues of one or the other provider. Suffice it to say that there are lots of ways to skin this particular cat, and each has its devotees and customers prepared to sing its praises, or equally, detractors prepared to do it down.

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