A unique partnership among retailers, a hardware vendor, a software maker, and a telecom enterprise is the driving force behind putting high-speed wireless connectivity within easy reach of mobile device users, whether they’re getting a latte or waiting for a flight.

The biggest deployment prong is taking place at 2,000 Starbucks locations, where 801.11b-based Wi-Fi hotspots are being built by project team members T-Mobile USA and the Hewlett-Packard Company. Several airline organizations are also gearing up to provide similar connectivity to customers.

Connectivity with your coffee?
The wireless service, which began rollout late this summer, is available at Starbucks shops in metropolitan Atlanta; Austin; Boston; Connecticut; Dallas; Denver; Houston; New Jersey; New York; Portland, OR; Philadelphia; the San Francisco Bay area; Seattle and the Puget Sound area; Vancouver; and London, England. Starbucks has outfitted about 50 percent of its 4,200 nationwide stores with Wi-Fi connectivity and plans to increase that number to 70 percent in the relatively near future, though no firm timetable has been set.

T-Mobile is providing backhaul connectivity from the stores to points-of-presence, typically via a T-1 line, according to Frank Ramirez, the director of business products for T-Mobile, formerly VoiceStream.

The idea is to marry T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) infrastructures to provide end-to-end seamless e-mail and Internet access.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) is contributing its new Wireless Connection Manager client software. The software, which is free to end users, automatically configures a Starbucks customer’s laptop to use Wi-Fi protocols.

Users must have a T-Mobile HotSpot service account. The laptop/notebook or Pocket PC must have a Wi-Fi (802.11b) wireless card (like the Compaq 802.11b WL110 wireless card). The HP Wireless Connection Manager application runs on Windows 2000. Subscription plans for T-Mobile service range from monthly access ($29.99 unlimited) to prepaid plans ($20 for 120 minutes per month) to metered plans on which users pay as they go ($2.99 for 15 minutes).

The effort, according to the participating vendors, is providing what today’s corporate users want and boosting business at the same time. For Starbucks and other retailers, the project’s a customer lure that they hope will boost business and sales; for T-Mobile, it’s a revenue generator via service subscriptions. For the corporate professional, it’s more access points in more locations than ever—mobility at its peak.

“It makes it seamless or simple for a mobile professional to configure his notebook and PocketPC to autosense and connect to any available network,” explained HP spokesperson Dayna Fried.

Coordination key to success
This isn’t the first attempt by Starbucks to offer customers connectivity. The initial effort to provide wireless LAN connectivity, launched in the summer of 2001 with MobileStar Network, was effectively shut down when the telecom vendor closed shop. At the time, about 350 Starbucks locations had been connected. Starbucks vowed to continue the effort.

According to Starbucks, the key to deployment success the second time has been strong project management on every level and from each partner involved.

“You want to direct the teams to ensure there’s a really complete look at the process flow, how the deployment works, how the communications works,” explained Anne Saunders, VP of Starbucks Interactive.

“You go to the stores and make sure there are a lot of contingency plans in place. You put a team in place and have regular meetings. It’s all Project Management 101.”

So far, the project is on schedule, and usage is exceeding expectations, though Starbucks could not yet provide specific user numbers. The main goal, according to team members, is a successful program that aligns the interests of all parties.

“It’s always a challenge from the standpoint that everyone has his own self-interest at heart,” Ramirez said. “We all see the opportunity to raise the water level for all the organizations.”

Starbucks deployment targets are properties with adequate seating and in locations considered to have a high concentration of laptop users.

User base trends
While it’s not surprising that e-mail is the most popular activity at the hotspots, Starbucks has noted some other user trends. The new connectivity hotspots are being used by real estate agents to review online multiple listing service (MLS) listings with house-hunting clients. In New York, newspaper photographers are stopping by the nearest Starbucks hotspots to electronically download pictures to offices—saving travel time and improving deadline efficiency.

Every business ultimately wants a good ROI on technology, but Saunders said it’s not a big goal for Starbucks at this point.

“One of the great things about working for Starbucks is that we don’t have to look immediately for a return. I think we are looking at this as a platform to have in place to do something positive over time.”

For T-Mobile, the Starbucks hotspots are just the beginning of what the company hopes will be a heavy-duty business initiative. T-Mobile is also linking hotspots for American, Delta, United, and Borders Books. All told, the company has hotspots in almost 2,000 locations in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The retailing involvement is critical to deployment, according to the carrier.

“Everyone understands that for this business to be successful you have to secure hotspot locations in brand-name venues,” said Ramirez.