I'm having my second ever for-fee Wi-Fi experience as I type this at a Starbucks outlet on Capitol Hill in Seattle. MobileStar, the coffee firm's wireless network partner, has been quietly rolling out more and more outlets in several major cities over the last three months, including Seattle, San Francisco, and New York. They've just started to charge in the last several days. I paid the minimum possible amount, $2.95 for 15 minutes which ticks off to a pricey 20 cents per minute following that.
MobileStar also dropped its recent promotional pricing plans and rolled out its regional unlimited minutes plan. Let's take a look at the pricing. At first glance, it appears flat-rate based on service: some number of minutes or unlimited use. In fact, there are a lot of provisos to pay attention to.
The four plans they offer are:
- StarPlan 200: $16/month for 200 minutes, 10 cents/min. above that
- StarPlan 500: $35/month for 500 minutes, 8 cents/minute above that
- National Galaxy Plan: $60/month, unlimited time
- Local Galaxy Plan: $30/month (til 9/30/01) for unlimited use in a region, like Seattle/Tacoma, and 15 cents/minute for use outside that region
- The tryout rate, their above-mentioned Pulsar Plan, is $2.95 for 15 minutes, 20 cents per additional minute.
- They also offer a some packages to buy a Wi-Fi card while signing up for service.
The not-so-fine print is worth examining. I'll reproduce the relevant parts in their own language with my comments in italic:
- 12 month contract applies to all monthly subscription plans. You're billed monthly, but you'll pay for the whole year. Or, will you be back charged on cancellation at the per-minute rate?
- $1.00 airport surcharge applies to all service plans at airport locations only and will be assessed only one time per location per a 24 hour period. They need to recoup their expense faster in airports where they're paying franchise fees. In some cases, these extra fees may go entirely to the airports.
- All plans include 500 MB data transfer per month. Additional data transfer usage will be rated at $0.25/MB. This is a fairly hefty surcharge. An extra 100 Mb is $25. Think about that before transferring PowerPoint presentations outside of the office. There's no indication that you'll be able to monitor usage, as there doesn't appear to be a simple link to account information after your intial signup.
The charges when calculated hourly are closer to Internet kiosk fees rather than Internet cafe rates (which are more like $4 to $8 per hour). The per-megabyte charge worries me unless they provide an application or an account tool that allows a user to keep track of these charges.
A quick spot check of hotel properties they offer service at doesn't mention any per-site surcharge (which is often $10/24-hour-period for their competitor WayPort). It also notes that the hotels (at least the half-dozen I checked randomly) have FH (frequency hopping) service, which is the older HomeRF/OpenAir standard. It not only runs at under 2 Mbps, but isn't compatible with 802.11b or any of its variants.
The signup server is a secure SSL Web server; see my entry yesterday about security on that score. This use of SSL ensures that your credit-card information and login name and password are not zipping around unprotected as you enter them over the local network.
Generally, MobileStar appears to be pursuing their correct market: business users who won't care about spending a few bucks for a service that's ubiquitous and works. MobileStar has to be careful to roll out additional airport access quickly, as it's much more likely business travellers will have the need there than at random points along the way. It's also a great extortion point: anyone travelling with a laptop (or even a Palm or Handspring with the right module) would pony up a few bucks to not wrestle with phone cards and payphones in a pinch.
WayPort has tied up a number of hotel properties - which would argue for a fee-settlement roaming agreement between the two firms allowing their users to cross networks. But recent comments from MobileStar's new CEO indicate he thinks roaming is far in the future. His take is quite different from the previous CEO, who thought roaming agreements would help rise the tide that floats all boats.
Another problem looming for MobileStar and other companies rolling Wi-Fi into high-density central points where people congregate in cities: free networks. I filed an article yesterday for the Seattle Weekly on this subject, and I'll link to it next Thursday when it appears in print. But I can summarize a bit here.
The free wireless networks that are being built in cities around the world may be able to provide an adequate patchwork or even perfectly dense and seamless grid of access that covers areas far, far greater than any commercial company could pull off. Their costs are low, they already may have high-speed access, and the advocates typically live in dense, urban neighborhoods.
A summit of these builders I attended a few weeks ago reveals incredible technical competence and a hankering for the cheapest best thing.
Where I sit right now, looking at downtown Seattle buildings (line of sight) as well as several other coffee shops and restaurants and tall residential buildings, I could reach any of hundreds of networks, if publicly available. MobileStar's competition may come from the open sky, not the closed network.
internetnews.com reports that the IEEE still hasn't approved a modulation scheme for 802.11g: it sounds likely that Intersil's OFDM proposal will finally be agreed upon in Seattle in September. Meanwhile, analysts are saying that 802.11a's higher speed and uncluttered spectrum make it the natural ultimate wireless choice. This disregards the problem of installed base, which will grow by leaps and bounds before 802.11a ever ships; cost, which will certainly be high initially, just as 802.11b was; and range, which physics dictates requires more power at that frequency to span a greater distance.