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Wi-Fi with Your Big Mac, Sir?

Wi-Fi with Your Big Mac, Sir?

IBM thinks what you need with your Big Mac is Wi-Fi connectivity, so they are deploying access points in McDonald's restaurants across the U.S., starting in New York City. This is being done under the Cometa brand, the alliance between IBM, AT&T, and Intel on the technical side, with 3i and Apex providing the finance. Always keen to combine fast food with fast-network access, WBT's Editor-in-Chief, Bill Ray, tracked down Dean Douglas, VP for the Telecommunications Industry, IBM Global Services, to talk about Wi-Fi, burgers, and the problems of cleaning ThinkPads...

WBT: So you're planning to deploy Wi-Fi hotspots in McDonald's restaurants - how many and where? Is the plan to eventually go in to every one, or just selected sites? What's the timeframe involved?
DOUGLAS: Initially, we worked in conjunction with Cometa Networks to make Wi-Fi available at 10 McDonald's locations around New York City in March. By year-end, we'll have helped McDonald's with many of the 300 restaurants where they are introducing this service, in New York, Chicago, and parts of California.

WBT: How will people know which locations have connectivity, and which don't?
DOUGLAS: McDonald's has developed a service mark to show which sites are ready for wireless (see Figure 1); it will be just like a Visa or MasterCard logo in the window.

WBT: Here in London we still sometimes see "PhonePoint" (a defunct mobile telephone provider) service marks around the place; let's hope this doesn't end up like that.
DOUGLAS: Well Cometa has worked hard to get the business model right. We started in the fall of 2001 and are only now announcing our first deployment; those years haven't been wasted and we're confident we've got it right.

WBT: McDonald's, unlike, say, a coffee shop, is generally somewhere you arrive, eat, and leave. Lingering over a cup of tea while finishing some work is not encouraged, so when are people going to use the wireless connectivity?
DOUGLAS: Retail establishments including fast-food restaurants hope to use Wi-Fi to encourage patrons to stay longer in their franchises in hopes of encouraging sales of high-margin items like coffee, beverages, and desserts. The service is likely to appeal particularly to "windshield warriors" - sales reps and others who spend a great deal of time on the road - who may have time to work between meetings, etc. You may only have a few minutes, but why not grab a soft drink while you download or upload some work? With the right brands, these windshield warriors know where to find high-speed data access as well as a place for a rest, even if they're not having lunch.

WBT: Sticking a Wi-Fi access point in the building is a very small part of the process; who will be providing the Internet connectivity, and at what speeds?
DOUGLAS: We provide the wireless access, which includes integration to the billing system, security, and enterprise-grade reliability. In addition, we are providing the back-office functions that connect a user to the network and the interfaces to the carriers that bill the end user. AT&T is the supplier of the network services, including real-time monitoring to make sure the connections stay "up." These connections are designed to carry high-bandwidth traffic, so they will be at a broadband level.

WBT: The big question, of course, is how are people going to pay to use this? Will it be yet another subscription for them to sign up for, or will it be added to another bill? Will they pay by time or data?
DOUGLAS: Customers will be billed through a carrier that provides them with this service. Some users will even use the same VPN interface, which allows them to access the network with the same logon and password that they use with a dialup or DSL connection. Cometa will not sell direct to end users. We don't want to add layers of inconvenience for consumers who want to use the service.

WBT: So, if I've got DSL at home on a flat rate, my provider might throw in McDonald's access too?
DOUGLAS: They might charge you a few dollars more, but they might provide free coffee.

WBT: Or tea? Free tea with my access, I like that. How do you see the payment for Wi-Fi evolving over time? In Europe, charging by the quantity of data is increasingly becoming the norm, at least for mobile applications, but for Wi-Fi that's more difficult.
DOUGLAS: The carriers will define how the Cometa network service is priced to the end user. I would expect that many of the carriers will bundle the Cometa service with other data services, but ultimately that is their decision.

WBT: Who's going to deal with the technical support for these users? No offense to McDonald's staff, but I don't think supporting network connectivity is in their job description. When someone can't connect, he or she is going to walk up to the counter and ask why not. How will McDonald's staff cope with that?
DOUGLAS: IBM's philosophy with Wi-Fi is that it had better work when we're done installing it! If there is trouble on the client network side, there is a help-desk number to call that's staffed by IBM and AT&T.

WBT: What kinds of devices are you expecting these people to be using? Handhelds are increasingly coming with Wi-Fi integration and I wonder if you see that as viable in the long term?
DOUGLAS: Initially it will be laptops, but it won't be long before you start to see hand-held devices that are 802.11 capable. The proliferation of Wi-Fi is going to drive all kinds of new devices into the marketplace, including those that do not need a human interface.

WBT: So do you see a future for Bluetooth in this space?
DOUGLAS: Bluetooth is a useful technology which can coexist with Wi-Fi. It's much cheaper, and for many applications where links between devices are needed it's ideal.

WBT: McDonald's has always followed the food-is-fun philosophy, and I wonder if you'll be providing any particular content for the younger customers (though I would guess the number of such customers with Wi-Fi enabled equipment is minimal at the moment, it seems likely to increase).
DOUGLAS: Our market is the enterprise end user such as a claims adjuster, pharmaceutical rep, the field worker, or sales agent - the windshield warriors referenced before. Kids will want to use it and can use it, but we're targeting folks whose workday can be made more productive and easier by staying in touch while on the road.

WBT: Isn't Wi-Fi just another bubble aimed at driving up share prices and promising revenue where there is none now? When I read the "industry reports" about revenue from Wi-Fi I'm strongly reminded of the same companies telling me interactive TV would raise millions by now. iTV is coming, but it's slowly becoming part of television, more evolution than revolution. Isn't the same true of Wi-Fi?
DOUGLAS: The Wi-Fi customers we've been working with for the past three years are reporting significant return on their investments. It is more than technology; Wi-Fi acts as a real catalyst to solving business problems. With the appropriate model, it provides real justification and return on investment. IBM's own Wi-Fi deployments are saving real dollars and provide a collaborative approach to support our research and development staffs. These are legitimate productivity gains. More important, it is very inexpensive to deploy so pilots can be done quickly and without significant investments. The bottom line is that it is cost effective and robust enough to handle complex systems like enterprise resource planning (ERP), and yet it is simple to deploy and use.

WBT: WCDMA, of course, offers good connection speeds without having to hang around fast-food joints. Won't that eventually replace any Wi-Fi that gets deployed? What can Wi-Fi offer in the face of such competition?
DOUGLAS: The networks are complementary. Wi-Fi provides a very cost-effective approach to on-premise communications. WCDMA or CDMA EV-DO provides a wide area, mobile solution for these same end users. In effect, if you are at or very close to a hotspot, you may want to take advantage of the speeds they provide for an intense interactive session. If you just have a quick query or are not able to get to a hotspot, the mobile networks can provide all the capacity you need.

WBT: Do you know how to go about removing Big Mac Special Sauce from a ThinkPad keyboard? Will this be covered under the warranty?
DOUGLAS: Our experience is that if Special Sauce is removed as soon as possible with a light swipe of a clean napkin you won't have any problems. The sauce is much better on the sandwich than on the computer anyway.

More Stories By Bill Ray

Bill Ray, former editor-in-chief (and continuing distinguished contributor to) Wireless Business & Technology magazine, has been developing wireless applications for over 20 ears on just about every platform available. Heavily involved in Java since its release, he developed some of the first cryptography applications for Java and was a founder of JCP Computer Services, a company later sold to Sun Microsystems. At Swisscom he was responsible for the first Java-capable DTV set-top box, and currently holds the position of head of Enabling Software at 02, a UK network operator.

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