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Connect, Enable, Transform … Getting Wireless Right

In the past few months, I’ve been various places where I would have liked to have been online. (Well, actually, there is no place I wouldn’t like to be online.) Often, these are places where I can detect that I am surrounded by a wireless network – just not one that I am permitted to use. For example, when in the University of Michigan Business School, I can perceive the wireless network, but since I am staff in the School of Education, I don’t have access. Unless, during limited business hours, I fill out forms, authenticate myself, and check out a special PCMIA card.

Yet, last week as I was refueling my SUV at a local gas station I noticed a little Wi-Fi decal on the door. I checked and, sure enough, I was able to pop onto the hot spot with my notebook – for free, and without creating any identity-sucking account – and download my email while I was pumping gas.

This can be very confusing and frustrating. When I am in a high-tech building on a college campus, there is no connectivity for me. Yet when I am in a gas station at the end of the dirt road I live on, I can get on line?

Wouldn’t you think that universities and colleges would have more at stake, in terms of being identified with and providing Internet access, than gas stations? We do. And we think that the model that Case Western Reserve University is implementing right now is the one to follow.

Case went "live" this week. Spread throughout the Case campus and the University Circle area are 1,230 Cisco wireless access points. Students, faculty, and staff can log in with security – or they and visitors of all kinds, including staff, faculty, and students from elsewhere, can log into a "guest" domain and go browsing the Internet.

If this was a year from now and I was anywhere in Cleveland, I might be able to access a no-charge, completely public wireless network, a courtesy that should extend throughout the entire metropolitan region. That’s Case’s vision for what is being called "OneCleveland," and it’s making that vision real. We think Case is getting it right and that all campuses should follow suit, right away.

We recently talked to Lev Gonick, Case’s CIO, and asked him about the technology issues and the security issues: "What about security? What about file sharing and bandwidth?" we asked. And he responded: "Those were discussions for four years ago." Lev ech'es our own frequent refrain that, "the technology is the easy part." He suggests that looking at such a wonderful community resource from the traditional IT staff perspective is looking at it from the wrong end. Where else but on or near a college campus would you expect to find your connection to information – that’s the place to begin looking from!

Nothing is really free, of course, and so there are many other models. One is the Starbucks model, where customers are charged $6 per hour for access. But in just trying to cover its costs, Starbucks is spending more money: its billing system and related customer support may be the most expensive part of the system. And Starbucks is averaging less than two paying Internet-using customers per day, per store.

At least the smart folks at Starbucks realized early on that being a hot spot would draw customers in. They just got all tied up in knots about the cost and payment model. There are other models. Schlotzky’s Deli actually encourages its store managers to beam Wi-Fi into college dormitories. (Users have to register, which has its obvious pluses and minuses.) Quoted in a recent Wired article, one California restaurant owner puts in a way we think will be true in every restaurant in less than 10 years: "Charging for online usage would be like charging for salt and pepper."

Another model, driven by a great university, is Georgia’s WAGZone. It has nine Wi-Fi transmission points in downtown Athens, Ga. Anyone can access WAGZone content, but only University of Georgia students and faculty can access the Internet through it. It has some nifty applications, one of which is Nimbus, through which a user can find and track friends who are also downtown. Local merchants can offer services and sales to users’ PDAs, and so it g'es. WAGZone, like Case’s area-wide efforts, are very logical and wise attempts to use the technology – which until now has seemed to have been on its way to making "place" irrelevant – to make location pertinent once again.

The proliferation of wireless connectivity is going to evolve into a more uniform, durable model a lot faster than dial-up ISPs did. Where can the money come from? As far as paying for the wireless cloud headed for Cleveland, Case is working to develop a strong network of large area institutions which share its vision that a connected and enabled populace can transform the region. (It’s worth noting that a connected, educated populace is more likely to pay for enhanced services, too.)

We think that connectivity, at least basic connectivity, is going to become as pervasive as air to breathe. Yes, there will be special services and enhancements, but for basic connectivity it just makes sense -- especially in the societal arena -- to make it "free." Case wants to "connect," "enable," and "transform." It wants to become "the most powerful learning environment in the world." It’s doing the connecting and enabling right now, and we bet the transformation follows right along. Because it’s doing the right thing.

Here’s a link to an in-depth CIO magazine article about the WAGZone:

And here’s the Wired article about the Starbucks model:

And here’s more about the Case initiative:

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