Dave Vucina, 49, is at the forefront of the latest "it" phenomenon in e-business. Wayport, where Vucina has been CEO for the past two years, is the largest operator of wireless local-area networks in hotel rooms and airport lounges in the U.S. Called Wi-Fi, these networks are just starting to hit the public's radar, though Wayport already operates them in 465 hotels, including such chains as Hilton, Sheraton, and Marriott, plus nine major airports including Chicago's O'Hare to New York's LaGuardia.
Wayport and Vucina have, essentially, proven the business case for Wi-Fi, which allows surfers to browse the Web and download presentations at 50 times the speed of a dial-up connection. And it turns out that wherever Wi-Fi is installed, hotel-occupancy rates rise 2% to 3%. Rivals have hurried to the market based on this good news, but Wayport enjoys some early-entrant advantages.
Most hotels and airports can handle only one Wi-Fi network without jeopardizing the quality of access. So other operators most likely will have to rent networks from Wayport to provide services. Already, Wayport's network accounts for 75% of the footprint of Wi-Fi provider Boingo's broadband service.
CONNECT AT KINKO'S? Vucina's ambitions run high. About 5% of business travelers, Wayport's core market, use Wi-Fi in their hotel rooms today. That number could reach 10% in 12 months, he estimates. So over the next nine months, Wayport plans to install Wi-Fi in 300 more hotels and four to six airports. That will still be a drop in the bucket: Of about 15,000 hotels that could use the service, only 1,500 offer it, Vucina estimates.
He also spies an opportunity to co-brand Wi-Fi service with a national retail chain, such as McDonald's or Kinko's. "The business traveler is the lowest-hanging fruit," he says.
Despite his company's explosive growth, Vucina hasn't lost sight of the fundamentals. About six months ago, he began asking hotels to pay for their own infrastructure, which Wayport installs and manages. It turns out that most are happy to comply. "They can't afford not to have [Wi-Fi]," Vucina says.
"HAVE TO HAVE IT." Wayport also doesn't spend much money on marketing (though recently it began to advertise its service on napkins at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport). As a result, the privately held, Austin (Tex.) company should turn profitable within six months, he predicts.
Of course, problems such as interference still plague Wi-Fi technology. More crucial, no one knows which business models will work with Wi-Fi, says Craig Mathias, the founder of wireless consultancy Farpoint Group. "There's no guaranteed winner out there," he says. Still, says Vucina, "once you've used [Wi-Fi], that's just the only way you'll work. You have to have it, just like food. When we travel, we still eat."
Vucina himself uses Wi-Fi at work and at home. He likes to check sports scores and e-mail from the porch or from the sectional couch in his living room. Occasionally, he takes his laptop out to the driveway to demonstrate the wonders of Wi-Fi to the neighbors. Like most people who've tried it, they're easy converts. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.