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« Business News: b becomes Big | Main | News for 7/17 »

July 13, 2001


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 has begun their medium-hard launch of the service. They redesigned their Web site and they've added a special Starbucks page with details on locations.

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.

802.11g Developments 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.


I am curious about the specifics for how this works. How do they know what data is being transmitted from what device? For example, do you have to use their proxy server so that it can monitor & bill for browser traffic? If so, that would be a nightmare to have to switch proxy servers everywhere you go. Or do they control it through network names or WEP keys? Only providing you the needed information by signing up first. Or is there some type of unique client that you have to run?

The Mobilestar web site doesn't provide any answers to these question, or at least none that I could find. Since you are the first person I have run across with some first hand experience with this, I am curious.

Howdy, Frank. My understanding is that a combination of automatic proxy, firewall, and authentication server sits between the access point and the Internet in each MobileStar location. You connect to the access point without WEP key or other authentication. But the server intercepts and redirects any attempts to get out to the Internet without reconfiguration on your part. This firewall proxy can read an HTTP/Web request and reply with a legal redirect response.

When you enter a user name and password, the authentication server must use the MAC (Media Access Control) address of your 802.11b card to identify your session. It may also hash some other unique information, such as your browser identifier for additional security.

Because of the non-WEP-based connection, even though your user name and password are entered via a secure, encrypted SSL transaction (https), your MAC address is sent in the clear. So, conceivably, someone could clone that address and use it, but without the user name and password - and assuming you use the logout feature that MobileStar provides to halt a session or the natural timeout limit they must build in - it wouldn't do a cloner any good.

Cloning isn't the tedious, expensive, and illegal act that's involved in duplicating cell phones. Most 802.11b client software has a feature to change the unique MAC address in case you need to change this for a network configuration.

So, you open a page in a browser, log in, and you are connected to the Internet. (Provided you have a user id & password set up.) And since it is all time based they just track how long you are logged in, with a time out. Do I have it right?

Now, once you ave set up with a user id and password will you be able to log in from any Mobilestar point of presence? If that is the case, I think the key for them will be combining Starbucks with more sites that people may want to connect.. like hotels, airports, etc.. Convention centers like McCormack Place in Chicago or Vegas would be a given. If they are in more places where I would want to connect then I can see the usefulness of their service. But, if they are only in Starbucks then they are tied to how often I go to Starbucks, which for me isn't that often.

BTW, which brand of WLAN card did you use?


MobileStar is managing the account, so you're setting up a MobileStar account, not a Starbucks account. MobileStar (as you read in my main essay) isn't well established outside American Airlines' executive membership lounges and some hotel chains, and the hotel chains don't use 802.11b.

My point in that main essay, too, is that the current CEO of MobileStar has made noise that he's not interested in pursuing roaming agreements with other networks. The CEO of AirWave said to me a few months ago that it costs $2 million to fully outfit an airport terminal, although cheaper method exist, such as that pursued by Global Digital Media. But I don't believe we'll see MobileStar lighting up whole terminals soon.

I use Apple AirPort cards which are identical to Lucent/Agere's Orinoco 40/64-bit unit. I have also used the Orinoco card itself.

Microsoft is also supposed to have some involvement in this. Any indication of what that is, and whether it is beyond marketing?

Microsoft is building support into Windows XP for managing 802.11b network connections, keys, etc. The current release has no built-in support, requiring vendors to build their own, typically poor and unintegrated software for managing the connection. I had consistent problems with a Vaio laptop (running Windows 98 SE) and an Orinoco card because of this lack of integration. Booting with the card in and no network present would sometimes hang the machine; the same with putting it to sleep and walking out of a Wi-Fi hot spot, and waking it.

Integration would support better control over multiple network access with separate WEP encryption keys, as well as easier selection of networks when multiple SSIDs (network identifiers) are available.