Now that Starbucks has almost single-handedly put hot spots—those areas where anyone with a mobile device can gain wireless access to the Internet—firmly into the American lexicon, property management companies are beginning to explore just how to make a similar model work in their apartment communities.

Most companies are now mulling wireless technology, acknowledging that it is part of their future plans—generally either to provide wireless Internet access to residents in common areas, link computing resources in the front office, or “mobilize” maintenance staff and other employees. But they remain cautious. “We're putting a toe in the water,” says Greg McDonald, director of telecommunications at Camden Property Trust in Houston, who cautions against relying on wireless as the sole source of Internet service. Camden has added hot spots to some of its properties and is looking to expand as the technology evolves.

On the plus side, wireless access is relatively easy to set up. All that it is needed is a wireless router to create an access point (think of it as an on-ramp to the Internet), interface cards in mobile devices, and a high-speed Internet access through a carrier such as T-Mobile or Verizon Wireless. “You're talking about $100,” says D. Thomas Figert, director of information technology at BH Management in Dallas. Companies such as Cisco Systems' Linksys division offer “hot spot in a box” solutions that can be implemented very quickly.

But wireless is truly a “golly, gee-whiz” technology. Its Jetsonian features can seduce even the most conservative executive into forgetting about a real business proposition and the technology's remaining drawbacks. Or it scares them to death. Either way, they are struggling to get a clear perspective on what wireless may have to offer their organizations.

The Real Scoop

Wireless offers a bevy of potential benefits, such as greater flexibility among computing resources, true mobility of residents and staff, and increased efficiency and productivity among employees. That's particularly true for property maintenance workers, who can adapt the technology to their own work styles rather than vice-versa.

These advantages are too attractive for the industry to pass up. “It has become much more acceptable for owners to place wireless on a property, typically in hot-spot form,” says David Cardwell, vice president of capital markets and technology at the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C.

A confluence of elements, too, has made wireless a more viable option today. Standards are maturing. WiFi, Bluetooth, and a bevy of wireless local area network technology has estabilized. Wireless networks have gotten faster: The 802.11b wireless standard dealt with analog offerings, but its more advanced sibling 802.11g offers connection speeds theoretically faster than DSL or cable modem. Microsoft's Service Pack 2 has made Windows much more wireless-friendly.

Finally, nearly every laptop computer today comes with an interface card that turns it into a wireless-capable device. “You would have to try hard to buy a computer without a card now,” says BH Management's Figert. “Devices alert you now, saying, ‘I've found a wireless connection. Would you like to connect?'”

What's more, the craving for broadband services in this country is seemingly insatiable, and wireless broadband is being seen both as an alternative and a complement to wired broadband access such as cable modems or DSL. Market research firm In-Stat/MDR of Newton, Mass., predicts that the number of residential subscriptions to fixed wireless broadband domestically will grow to 3.1 million by the end of 2006. That's up from the 338,000 subscribers reported in 2001.

Is Wireless Ready for Primetime?

Despite the great strides in wireless technology, some problems still persist. First and foremost, it is not practical for every residential community. Student residences and higher-end properties are showing the most interest in wireless solutions, explains Cardwell. Lower-income properties with residents who either don't have computers or rely on lower-cost PCs have a harder time justifying wireless high-speed access. And, the monthly cost of wireless broadband itself (generally between $20 and $40 per month, charged either to residents or properties) can be prohibitive.