For wireless on the go, businesses pick mobile broadband over Wi-Fi, writes David Flynn.
Wireless hot spots may suit the casual cafe set but businesses are increasingly relying on 3G mobile broadband to get connected anywhere, any time. It's the next wave in mobile computing and completes the shift from desktops to laptops, with mobile phone networks providing a high-speed wireless feed that's faster than basic home and office ADSL connections.
And while those speeds increase, the costs are coming down. Australia's "big three" business carriers - Optus, Telstra and Vodafone - all offer upwards of 3GB of data for a low $30 a month, including a free USB modem. That's almost half the price of those same plans just two years ago, with a newly competitive Telstra making the biggest cuts.
Add the appeal of prepaid wireless broadband, less than $100 for the USB modem and 1GB of data - a package Vodafone has dropped to $49 - and it's hard to imagine why anyone would bother hunting around for a Wi-Fi hot spot.
"Hot spots haven't really taken off to the same extent in Australia as you might find in Europe or the US," says the marketing manager for Intel Australia, Kate Burleigh. "There's been a huge uptake of Wi-Fi in offices and homes but, for most notebook users, when they need to get online they don't want to think about where to go. They want the internet right away, wherever they are, and that's what 3G is all about."
Those tell-tale 3G modems hanging off a notebook's USB port remain the easiest way for business users to enjoy a high-speed hook-up. Carriers have broadened their offerings from the standard 24-month lock-in to 12-month contracts, month-by-month plans and prepaid deals.
While prepaid is ostensibly aimed at the cost-sensitive consumer market, it's being adopted by businesses with sporadic internet needs and also as a way to taste-test 3G wireless. "Prepaid 3G is becoming increasingly popular with small and solo businesses, as well as companies who want to trial wireless broadband to how they will use it and to assess speed and coverage," explains the director of mobile solutions for Telstra Business Marketing, Tim Webber. "It gives them cost and price certainty before committing to a longer-term, post-paid contract."
The general manager for SMB products at Optus, Mark Baylis, says "more than half of Optus's small-to-medium business customers have a mobile broadband solution, and we expect a further 10 per cent to 20 per cent to adopt it over the next 12 months."
Optus has also been active in offering netbooks and notebooks bundled with a 3G modem and data plan for a single monthly fee, which Baylis says provides business "with the latest technology and an easy-to-manage cost."
Sales of notebooks with "embedded" 3G modems are also on the rise. HP reports that shipments of 3G laptops are growing by some 25 per cent year on year, while the product marketing manager for Toshiba, Matt Tumminello, cites a staggering "200 per cent to 500 per cent growth per annum" for Toshiba's range of 3G notebooks.
"This is coming off a small base," Tumminello admits. "We're still in single digits in terms of the total range but we'll slide into double digits within the next 12 months. At the current rate of growth, we're projecting that embedded 3G will be about a quarter of our business by the end of 2012."
According to a commercial notebook specialist with Acer Australia, Daniel Goffredo, 12 per cent of Acer notebooks and netbooks sold in Australia are now fitted with embedded 3G and about half of those are sold to SMB customers.
"There's been a shift in stores selling embedded 3G notebooks and it's proving to be very successful because they understand mobility and connectivity, compared to PC dealers who've been selling computers for the last 10 or 20 years," he says.
Notebooks with inbuilt 3G have advantages over models with a snap-on USB modem, Tumminello says.
"The main benefit is that there's no dongle to damage, leave behind at the office or lose," he says. "You also get better performance because the antenna is built into the laptop's lid, so it's up higher and this reduces dropout and gives you a stronger, more reliable signal."
The cost, it seems, remains the only barrier. "That price isn't dropping as quickly as we'd like it but it's coming down," Tumminello says.
"Inbuilt mobile broadband used to be limited to notebooks above $3000; now it's a natural assumption that any notebook over $2500 has 3G. I can see this dropping to $2000 very shortly. Eventually it will almost be a standard feature, like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are today."