At one time, if mobile workers wanted Internet access, the only option was to buy an expensive cellular subscription and hope a signal was available where it was needed. That has all been changed by the proliferation of public wireless LAN hotspots (and the providers' efforts to tell us just how many they have), and the inclusion of WLAN chips in most new business laptops: suddenly users can exchange all the data they wanted, at broadband speeds, for the price of a latte - but only in specific locations.

For IT managers looking for corporate mobile access packages, the advent of WLAN has made the picture more complicated than ever, with WLAN packages raising new questions about coverage, cost, security and integration with cellular options. Meanwhile, the introduction of 3G data services makes cellular more attractive than before, but at a steep cost. The quagmire is likely to get worse before it gets better, say industry analysts. "There is no nice solution for remote access for business workers at the moment," says Gartner analyst Ian Keene. "You've got to take what you can get."

WLAN hotspot aggregators and cellular vendors talk optimistically about seamless roaming between different mobile data networks, but the situation as it exists today remains a mess, analysts say. No WLAN offering can yet offer access to most hotspots. WLAN and cellular services are insufficient in isolation, but they aren't yet properly integrated either. The options for IT managers are to hold off until things improve, take an ad-hoc approach - or sort through a jungle of complex and shifting options. "What's needed is clarity for businesses on what they can get and how much it will cost," says Gartner's Keene. "Today there's very little clarity at all."

Unified wireless? Not yet
Most in the industry agree that a unified WLAN/cellular package is the ideal, but piecing together such a service is currently an expensive proposition. WLAN pricing remains surprisingly high (especially in Europe): for example, BT Openzone offers one hour's usage for £6 inc VAT, or 24 hours for £15 inc VAT. £85 per month buys unlimited minutes; BT also lets users pay 20p per minute or buy packages of minutes per month. Swisscom Eurospot offers Europe-wide prepaid vouchers for 10.90 euros for two hours up to a year's access for 1,079 euros; UK-only vouchers range from £3 for half an hour up to £86 for one month. US prices are somewhat cheaper, with aggregator Boingo Wireless, for example, offering unlimited access for a flat rate of $39.95 (£22) per month.

This basic level of pricing is just the beginning, however. Although a recent announcement by Deutsche Telekom is a step in the right direction, no WLAN service has comprehensive roaming agreements. So users can't expect that any hotspot they wish to use will be covered by their existing subscription. Regular hotspot users can expect to either hunt around for a location that's part of their network, or, more likely, use whatever's nearby and pay for additional one-off vouchers. "Roaming is vital," says Niall Murphy, chief technical officer for Wi-Fi wholesaler The Cloud. "No one service provider is going to be able to cover everywhere with Wi-Fi, the technology is too microcell-based. If people are going to buy it it has to be generally available."

Hotspots get varying levels of support. If you're at a particular coffee shop and having trouble connecting, your service provider might not be in a position to tell you the status of the access point, for example, Murphy says. The Cloud provides this sort of information to its resellers but other wholesalers don't.

Meanwhile, 3G data is emerging as a commercial proposition. A typical pricing scheme is Vodafone's offer of 500 Mbyte of traffic for £85 plus VAT per month. T-Mobile charges £70 per month. These 3G plans don't include voice access yet - Hutchison's 3 is still the only operator in the UK to offer voice-enabled 3G handsets (and is let down by its data service) though the others are planning to follow shortly.

3G has its own coverage issues: for the price they pay, users shouldn't expect to get high-speed data connectivity wherever they would get GSM coverage. Vodafone's 3G network, for example, only reaches 30 percent of the UK population, centring on London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool, Belfast, Cardiff, Leicester, Nottingham, Southampton, Portsmouth and the M25 and M4. Vodafone claims that since data usage is more focused on urban areas and motorways, its network covers 40 percent of data traffic. By autumn 2004 the network is planned to reach 50 percent of the population and to cover 60 percent of data traffic. When 3G isn't available, users get GPRS instead.

3G users can expect to pay more when they travel outside the UK, a serious consideration for most business travellers - with Vodafone, for example, roaming users can pay up to £5 per megabyte outside the UK.

Resolution is in the future
Wireless network operators, hotspot aggregators and system integrators are beginning to offer bundles including cellular and WLAN, but these are still in their infancy.

Industry observers say the current wireless mess is only to be expected; after all, WLANs were all but unknown in the UK a couple of years ago. "Companies are still getting used to the concept of the wireless Internet," says Infonetics Research directing analyst Richard Webb. "There are some grey areas around the business model, but the technology is beginning to crystallise. That usually has to happen before the commercial side becomes clear."