For better or worse, most of us are now hostage to a constant stream of data, images, and conversations beamed at us via cell phone and Wi-Fi networks. To remain tuned in, you probably have a quiver of fancy gadgets, like a smart phone with a slide-out keyboard, Skype or Vonage (NYSE:VG) boxes in your home for making phone calls over the Internet, and a Wi-Fi detector in your hand to let you know which cafés let you fire up the laptop and burrow into the corporate network.
Indeed, it's taken for granted now that in an always-on economy, being connected is key to business success. But if that's the case, if connectivity confers competitive advantage, then what really counts is how connected you are compared with the next guy. In other words, by limiting yourself to standard communications technologies and applications, you're just keeping up. If you want to get ahead, you've got to take your connectedness to the next level. Fortunately, that's doable--thanks to a handful of new, slightly exotic products that haven't yet achieved much awareness.
One way of boosting connectivity is to increase the amount of time the network is available to you. For all the talk of being constantly wired, even your Batman utility belt's worth of gadgets probably leaves you stranded offline from time to time. That's not just an issue when you're entertaining clients on the catamaran or inspecting drainage at a backwoods site. Researchers have found that one-third of all cell phone calls suffer from quality problems. And outside urban areas, Wi-Fi hot spots are the exception, not the rule.
You no longer have to put up with that sort of detachment. For starters, there are now cell phone range extenders, which typically enlist a book-size antenna that can be stuck on a wall or a car roof to snag faint signals. A small box then amplifies and broadcasts the signal to the immediate area so you--and your employees or family--can use a cell phone in a spot that's normally a dead zone. One example of a range extender: the $399.99 zBoost, from Atlanta-based Wi-Ex, which rebroadcasts signals across an area of about 2,500 square feet. The company has been shipping extenders since 2005, but it's been gaining more attention for more recent models that are compatible with a wider range of cell phone networks.
As for your wireless network, once you're out of range--meaning as soon as you step out the door, and possibly well before you get there--you're dependent on Wi-Fi hot spots. But your network can cover a wider range than you might think, thanks to new technology that can push a wireless network signal not just across your office or house but across an entire town or beyond. The most impressive claims for distance, up to 40 miles, come from MaxStream's $299 9Xtend. You won't get a broadband connection at those distances, but it's fine for e-mail and transferring small files.
If you demand full-on multimedia all the time, you need a satellite phone. As recently as a few years ago, medium-speed satellite data links were the privilege of those willing to lug a suitcase full of electronics, take a course in how to use the device, and pay hundreds of dollars for a few minutes of connection. But new satellites put in orbit in 2005 by a company called Inmarsat have led to a new service called BGAN that brings a high-speed connection to a $1,000 laptop-computer-size device for $9 per megabyte of transferred data--enough for about 100 e-mails or webpages, if you skip attachments and photos. One downside: You may have to stand by a window to snag a satellite. But that's a small price to pay for the ability to flame your sales manager from a spa in Tibet.
Will being able to get that e-mail sent or return that call when your counterpart at Acme is temporarily stuck in radio silence make a difference in how you fare? There's no way of knowing for certain, but if you're absolutely sure the answer is no, then you're leading a far more relaxed life than most of us.
Another way to gain strategic connectivity advantage is to put your current communications capabilities to better use. Take Web conferencing. We finally have the bandwidth to enable a roving manager to get a good video fix on life back at the office, but hardly anyone takes advantage of it. I suspect one reason is that standard webcams provide a fixed, fishbowl image akin to what you'd see above the counter in a 7-Eleven; it feels more like peeping through a porthole than standing in a room and looking around. But some new webcams allow you to control the view remotely, to spin the camera around and zoom in for a sharp view of a new design, or even of someone's face to see how he or she really feels about what you're saying. Sure, you could spy on your employees with it, too, but that's a fool's opportunity. If you're torn between needing to travel more for business and not wanting to spend time away from the kids, consider putting one in your kitchen at home and ask your kids to show you their homework when you're on the road. A good option is the D-Link DCS-6620G, about $755 at Amazon.com.
Okay, now you're truly connected, available 24-7, no matter where you are. What about your rivals? Can you increase your edge by lowering their ability to connect with you? One option is to short-circuit anyone's attempt to violate your privacy over the network. It's now easy to hide a tiny camera that wirelessly transmits images for posting on the Web. And if you think that violating people's privacy hasn't become routine, then you haven't looked at YouTube lately or, for that matter, read The Wall Street Journal. (And you certainly haven't held a position on the board of HP.) But technology is stepping up to offer some protection. Surreptitious transmissions, for example, can be stopped with a portable video camera and wireless network blocker. It's simply a small box that can be placed anywhere in a room, where it will jam camera, network, and Bluetooth signals up to a 30-foot radius. The Spy Store sells one online called the VJM-1 for $599.
The more paranoid among us might also want to block cell phone calls, and there are jamming devices available--though you won't yet find them in the United States, where they are illegal. Such devices are available in Europe and Japan, and for obvious reasons, the U.S. movie-theater industry has been lobbying to get permission to use them, which could open the door to other exceptions. Two U.S. companies, Cell Block Technologies and CellAntenna, claim to have developed versions that might be deemed legal, though neither is offering products to the consumer market yet. For now, those seeking to block cell phone transmissions might consider this low-tech but effective option: slapping metallic paint or sticking wire mesh on the walls, either of which will block cell phone and other signals. Stick-on mylar film will take care of the windows.
Then there's what I like to think of as "meta-connectivity"--that is, using other peoples' communication networks as a business resource in their own right. For example, it's already easy to track the location of employees and others through the use of cell phones (see "I'll Be Watching You," May 2006). But what about tracking the public at large? Think about it: Since nearly everyone carries a cell phone these days, knowing where the cell phones are is the same as knowing where the people are. Figuring out how crowds form, move, and disperse throughout the day could be valuable information for a range of businesses. One of the most immediate implications is for advertising, where the price of placement on an electronic billboard could fluctuate based on how many people are within viewing distance. This technology is still emerging. But two U.S. companies, IntelliOne and AirSage, are planning to market cell phone-based vehicle traffic monitoring services nationwide. Once these sorts of traffic-related services get the public used to the idea of being tracked anonymously, new kinds of data services should become widely available.
Of course, today's exotic communications gizmo is tomorrow's de rigueur, which means your reward for establishing a connectivity edge is getting to do it all over again when your weird gadgets start turning up everywhere else.
Contributing editor David H. Freedman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Boston-based author of several books about business and technology.