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India's first wireless cyber cafe opened

By Anand Parthasarathy

BANGALORE MARCH 29. Customers at the Cafe Coffee Day outlet on Bangalore's Lavelle Road can enjoy their espressos and cappuccinos even as they access the Internet from their laptop computers, without having to attach a telephone line. Bangalore's first cyber cafe — circa 1996 — is now India's first wireless cyber hotspot for the general public. You surf, as you slurp.

Nine hotels of the Taj Group in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore have also become `wireless enabled'. Their guests can surf the Net untethered while in the lobby, restaurants or their rooms. So can guests in some Oberoi group hotels.

Microsoft, Intel, Novell and Texas Instruments are just four of a growing number of Information Technology companies which believe in practicing what they preach: they have enveloped most of their labs and offices in India in invisible wireless networking so that staff can be `online' any where in the building, carrying their notebook PCs to the canteen or the rest room if they are so inclined.

The name of the game is Wi-Fi — Wireless Fidelity, as in Hi-Fidelity — what the technical-minded refer to as 802.11, the standard that the world has embraced to access the Internet without wires. And ever since the Indian Government opened up part of the radio spectrum for unlicensed exploitation late last year, Wireless Local Area Networks or WLANs are springing up in most of the Indian metros. Not surprisingly, Intel, the world's leading chip maker, chose the ambience of the Lavelle Road Coffee Day for the South India launch today, of its "Centrino technology" — the combo of mobile processor, associated chip set and the Wireless Network connection which the company hopes will `unwire' the portable PC. Major notebook makers including IBM, Acer, Toshiba and HP now offer Centrino-powered wireless LAN enabled notebooks. Wipro became the first Indian company to launch a Centrino-based portable PC — its `Little Genius C Series'. All of them offer the technology jump that Centrino promises: much reduced power consumption; hence longer operating periods on a battery — and `goodbye' to that chronic hazard of operating a portable PC placed on your lap — the possibility of a nasty burn on the thighs.

Starting prices in India are around Rs 1.5 lakhs. But till public Wi-Fi networks proliferate, there may not be too many opportunities for the Indian mobile PC users to `unwire'. Unfortunately. the early hotspots here have been created by players — mostly in the hospitality business — who seemingly want to turn it into an additional revenue stream even before the novelty and convenience of the technology has had time to register with the public. In all instances outside closed corporate corridors, Indian Wi-Fi hotspots are available only for those who are willing to pay for it. In contrast, the technology grew sharply in the U.S. because many players — like the Starbucks coffee chain and some leading pizza joints — initially offered it as a free additional perk to rope in customers for their main business. Meanwhile, a growing tribe of Indian IT players is filling the breach with a host of products and services to kick start the wireless hotspot business.

Bangalore-based Convergent Communications has done the turnkey installation for most of the hotel networks; while another city-based player, Ittiam Systems offers an end-to-end WLAN solution technology solution. Coffee Day was one of its earliest technology demonstrations.

The PC tools are there and the hot spots are growing, albeit slowly.It remains to be seen how soon and at what price point the canny Indian customer decides that `wireless is the way to go'.

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