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Making pollen while the sun shines: Loyal readers, I'll be taking the next week off for some serious staycationing, enjoying the variable Seattle weather, playing with the kids, and generally relaxing. I hope you are all doing the same, wherever in the world you are.
Please withhold all serious and interesting wireless news until after Labor Day, 'kay?
Welcome back, mile-high Wi-Fi: American Airlines has turned on Internet service in its fleet of 15 767-200s today. These aircraft ply routes between New York's JFK and three cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami. Service is $13 per flight, and bandwidth is expected to be 1.5 Mbps (uncompressed) upstream and downstream, although the service provider, Aircell, claims some advantages above that.
This is a big day for Aircell, which spent tens of millions to acquire the exclusive spectrum license that allows them to shoot Mbps to and from planes. My big question will be whether coverage remains seamless across an entire flight--how often one has to reconnect their VPN would be a big issue. If Aircell has architected the network correctly, passengers should never be reassigned an IP address, and connections shouldn't be dropped even if there's a hiccup in air-to-ground communication.
I chatted via Skype--text only, thank you--with Aircell CEO Jack Blumenstein this morning who is quite literally walking on air on an American flight. Blumenstein said it's remarkable even to him to be communicating with other airborne people across "a veritable airforce of AA planes spread out across the skies." Aircell has been working towards this in one form or another for many, many years. And now they get bragging rights at being first, even if it's a pilot project.
I've covered in-flight broadband for several years, and I've been wondering lately whether we'd be waiting until 2009 to see real production service. American is calling this a 3-to-6 month pilot to see what their passengers think. Just yesterday, I wrote up veteran travel writer Joe Brancatelli's frustration with the lack of information and some misinformation about in-flight broadband.
You can read more background on American's plans and Aircell's technology in a post I wrote for BoingBoing on 24-June-2008.
Suzanne Marta of the Dallas Morning News was liveblogging this morning from a flight to Los Angeles, as was Peter Ha at Crunchgear, who measured 1.7 Mbps downstream. Ha's broadband test relies on having no other active users on a network slowing down the test, so the real speeds up and down could be much higher.
Houston flips switch on free downtown Wi-Fi: Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle accidentally discovers the soft launch of the network funded by EarthLink's $5m default fee. (The fee was paid when they missed a milestone, and the firm later walked away.) The downtown area now has a limited pilot project that's free; the real effort in Houston is supposed to be at 10 housing projects and in parks where service would be used to bridge the digital divide and improve the quality of life. How, exactly, is part of what's being tested. Update: Silverman got more details from the city; this isn't being funded from that digital divide effort, and only cost $25,000, since they're already running a wireless network downtown. This free network is a joint effort of a downtown business group and the city.
Sacramento Wi-Fi plan dead: The city council has voted to terminate a contract with Sacramento Metro Connect, a group that never quite got its act together, and included Cisco, IBM, and Intel among its marquee partners. Like a similar group that was to unwire Silicon Valley, it seems the marquee names were placed there for strategic and promotional purposes only, not to figure out funding or do the heavy lifting. This should be embarrassing to those firms.
That's ASCII, not hex: An article on wardriving raises security hackles by repeating some slightly overheated statements about Wi-Fi security. The article opens with a 63-character ASCII WPA passphrase, which is later described as "hex." (ASCII passphrases in WPA can be up to 63 "printable" characters - ASCII 32 to 127 - while a hex version of a 256-bit TKIP or AES password is 64 hexadecimal digits long.) The article tries to conflate Wi-Fi attacks that led to the largest set of breaches in retail credit-card systems and wardriving, a hobbyist activity that's never been looked on very favorably by law enforcement. The sense of ennui of wardriving pioneers is pretty clear; when Wi-Fi is everywhere and generally secured, it's far less interesting. The wardriver in the article convinced the reporter that a maximum-length WPA passphrase stored on a USB drive for automatic use was the best way to go. But, really, 20 characters containing letters and punctuation and no words found in a dictionary along with changing your network's SSID (network name) provides all the security you'll ever need for a home or small business. (If you need more, deploy WPA/WPA2 Personal.)
Green Wi-Fi's Senegal efforts hit snags: The folks at Green Wi-Fi are well motivated, and they're running up against all forms of security theater and bureaucracy both here and in Senegal, where they have an active project. The San Francisco Chronicle notes the group's effort to build solar-powered, self-sustaining Internet access via mesh networked nodes. Getting devices out of the country, clearing customs in Senegal, and hooking up their solar system all hit problems they're working through. As with the One Laptop Per Child program, I see a "build it and they will come" mentality in Green Wi-Fi's mission statement: the notion that providing computing power and Internet access will result in good things, rather than an effort to figure out what good things need to be achieved, and whether computers and the Internet will assist.
Joe Brancatelli pokes beneath the surface of claims that in-flight Internet is imminent: I've covered some of the same ground, but veteran travel writer Brancatelli connected the dots by checking with the FAA to find the status of applications for aircraft certification by Aircell and others.
He's not very positive about it, because his research shows a mismatch between claims and work. He writes that an unnamed American airline executive is frustrated by the delay in launching the 3-to-6 month pilot on their trans-continental fleet; that Aircell hasn't submitted paperwork for Virgin's Airbus models for certification; and that the FAA just received a request to certify Delta's MD-80 craft, which makes a launch with 75 planes this year on that airline less likely.
Competitor Row 44 doesn't fare better in his analysis, as they promised spring and summer 2008 tests that still haven't happened, with Southwest and Alaska Airlines.
I'm a little more positive about the future of in-flight broadband. There's no particular conspiracy. It's hard to make it work. Development and testing is tricky due to FAA limits, and getting in-flight handoffs to work for seamless service at 35,000 feet is far more difficult than, say, cellular handoffs in a moving car at 100 feet above sea level. My suspicion is that tuning the service to be entirely reliable at launch is what's taking so long.
Brancatelli blames the high price of Connexion on its failure, but I don't think the $27 fee for long-haul flights deterred users. Lufthansa, which deployed all its long-haul fleet, apparently had very good usage. Most other airlines had few craft equipped, which didn't allow business travelers, able to expense several hours of work for a $27 fee, the reliability of having on-board Internet when they needed it. Connexion also had many reports of spotty service in certain areas.
Connexion's failure came from deploying technology that was old when it was deployed, which weighed too much, and which was too expensive to install. Connexion's revenue and expenses were forecast based on having several hundred aircraft with Connexion service--recall that it was supposed to be a domestic U.S. service, too. In the end they had about 100, I believe.
Brancatelli is also modest when he says Boeing "lost" $300m. That's part of what they wrote down. My sources say they spent more than a billion in R&D, transponder leases, ground station operation, airline incentives, and payoffs at the end.
Meraki reworks product line, drops new sales of community flavor: The cheap mesh router company has mutated slightly once again. The partly-Google-backed firm founded by MIT RoofNet "graduates" built the company on the notion that they could sell $50 routers that could mesh with each other, and use a robust central management system they developed. Over time, the $50 price didn't hold up for commercial networks of scale. Last October, the company mishandled a change in its business model when they abruptly announced a $100 increase in price for newly purchased nodes under their Meraki Pro level for any network that wanted to control whether or not ads appeared, have user accounts, and charge for service. (They eventually recovered, apologized, and reworked some of the transition details.) The company continued to offer a $50 indoor and $100 outdoor Standard level nodes for networks that required ads and had other limits. As of a few days ago, Standard is dead, and the Meraki mini has been upgraded to the Meraki Indoor ($150). The Indoor has signal strength LEDs on the side for better help in placing units, an internal antenna, and better resilience against power fluctuations. The company explains its move in eliminating Standard by noting that most customers moved to Pro. It's not precisely the end of idealism (nor did that happen last October), as Meraki is still one of the major commercial mesh vendors, and their products are still vastly easier and a fraction of the cost of higher-end competitors. (Update: On Friday, Meraki upgraded all its original user to the Pro edition at no cost. They're also continuing to sell the lower-priced Standard nodes to existing network customers until January 2009.)
New life for dead Tempe network? Another firm has expressed interest in buying the pennies on the dollar assets that remain of the former Kite Networks installation in Tempe from the firm that financed the venture as long as they can negotiate a new, more favorable deal with the city for mounting and removal rights. CTC, Inc., which the East Valley Tribune reports runs networks in the Kansas City, Mo., area, thinks there's an opportunity. The article notes that reception problems were due in part to the prevalence of stucco in Tempe, common in the southwest. Stucco walls layer plaster or other materials on a wire mesh for strength that turns a house into a bit of an accidental Faraday cage, partially shielding the home from electromagnetic radiation. (Could I go so far to say that Tempe's network could be a phoenix? Ouch.)
Wake up, you darn computer: Intel's new Remote Wake motherboards won't work with Wi-Fi, it's important to note. The feature, announced today, will let an incoming VoIP call (the articles all say "phone call over the Internet") to wake a computer, as long as the call comes from a particular source. Of course, the standard SIP protocol for VoIP doesn't have the kind of security and integrity that would allow this; Intel has to overcome the problem with network address translation that renders most computer unreachable from outside the local network without a separate service like GoToMyPC or LogMeIn; and it will only work for computers connected via Ethernet to a local network, because Wi-Fi is off when a computer sleeps, while Ethernet can remain lightly active. I don't have the protocol details yet, but there's long been a Wake on LAN protocol that required support in a router, operating system, and Ethernet card; Intel may be leveraging this.
The Star Tribune writes that the Minneapolis USI Wireless network has signed up over 10,000 users: Steve Alexander, who has closely covered the network for his paper, writes that the network operator told him they're beyond break even. It's a fascinating result; the city remains unique for its size in having a functioning, privately operated Wi-Fi network. Alexander shares several comments from readers about the service, mostly but not entirely negative, which makes sense: people are emailing him when they have problems.
After spending two weeks with the $130 Eye-Fi Explore Wi-Fi memory card, I'm a fan: The Eye-Fi Explore was introduced in July by the eponymous firm to support geotagging - embedding latitude and longitude into photo metadata - and easier uploading of images. The Eye-Fi Explore is a Secure Digital (SD) card with 2 GB of storage, a tiny computer, and a Wi-Fi radio. The Explore uses Skyhook Wireless's Wi-Fi positioning data combined with Wayport's network of 10,000 hotspots, mostly McDonald's, along with revised firmware and software that dramatically improves the experience of uploading photos.
The company shuffled its products into three versions several weeks ago: Eye-Fi Home ($80), which uploads only to a specific computer over a local network; Eye-Fi Share ($100), a rebranded version identical to its first offering last year, which can upload to photo-sharing services or a computer or both; and the Explore. (You can purchase the Eye-Fi Explore from Amazon.com, as well as the other models.)
I reviewed the Explore as a geotagging system for The Seattle Times this last Saturday; I'd reviewed the original Eye-Fi (now Eye-Fi Share) for them last year as well. You can read that review for my take on geotagging, or skip to the bottom of this review, as well.
The hardware is apparently the same or nearly so, and it works just as well as it did last year. The biggest improvements, however, are a few workflow tweaks that make it far easier to manage and track uploads of pictures without draining your camera's batteries down to zero.
Boingo Wireless's airport wireless division brings service to Washington's two airports: Dulles and Reagan (National) offer Wi-Fi under the regular terms. These airports carry 24m and 18m passengers, respectively, each year. It's $5/hr, $8/24 hours, and $22/month (no contract commitment) for US access, and $39/mo for worldwide access (no contract commitment). The company isn't the exclusive operator, but appears as one of three Wi-Fi network choices when you're in the airport.
HP buys Colubris: Colubris was an early wireless LAN company, making sophisticated hardware for the enterprise, but I've seen its market and products shift across many markets over several years, including hotspot offerings. I'd lost track of them in recent years, although this story says that the firm refocused on service providers rather than corporations. HP will integrate Colubris into ProCurve, which will compete more effectively against Cisco. A few years ago, there were beaucoup WLAN switch operators, each with somewhat different approaches and offerings. Airespace was bought by Cisco, Trapeze more recently by Belden, and Aruba went public.
iPhone sleeper cell: Security researchers demonstrated the use of an iPhone with an external battery pack as a method of sniffing networks from a mailroom, to find information that a business might not feel that it has to secure in the heart of its operations. Errata Security performed distant penetration testing for a client in this way, and found most of their wireless networks unprotected. This is sort of absurd, and I'll be curious what Errata posts on their own site about this project--the scope sounds wrong in the reporting on their talk--because every firm of any scale has some kind of encryption on their internal networks. If they don't, you have concerns at a much higher level than penetration testing.
Four chains, four Wi-Fi pay policies: CIO magazine looks at Borders, McDonald's, Panera, and Starbucks, and how they're offering Wi-Fi. I'd like to suggest you read this article, but the author writes, "Right now, according to Hotspot Locations, there are more than 33,000 WLAN hotspots worldwide, and more than 10,000 in the United States alone." I don't know who "Hotspot Locations" is, and I need to disclose that I have a financial interest in what must be their competitor, JiWire, but any hotspot finder that calls them "WLAN Hotspots" and reports 11,712 in the U.S. and 33,106 worldwide just isn't working very hard. JiWire lists over 230,000 hotspots worldwide, and notes over 60,000 in the U.S., while Boingo and iPass each resell access to over 100,000 hotspots worldwide.
Up, up, and away in my beautiful, my beautiful warballoon: Defcon hackers deployed a balloon with Wi-Fi receivers on it 150 feet in the air to scan for network vulnerabilities in Las Vegas last week. They found 1/3rd of networks had no encryption--although I always wonder if they're using passive scanning where 802.1X allows a limited connection for authentication and appears "open" in some ways, or if they were actively scanning, in which case 802.1X networks would be unavailable.
Cincinnati Metro service has Wi-Fi on 20 buses: The free service supplied by AT&T in an ads-for-access deal with the authority was placed after a couple years of testing on a relatively long commuter run.
The authority spends $15,000 per bus to setup a connection, which seems rather pricey. Other authorities are paying in the low thousands, from what I've seen, so I'm not sure what their particular case is. Update: Good news. The $15,000 was a typo; it's $1,500 per system. And AT&T isn't supplying the service; rather, they're paying for ads, and supplying the cellular backhaul. HarborLink Networks is actually providing the system.
The Oregonian notes that the city may still pick up tab for removing MetroFi's base station: Although MetroFi posted a $30,000 bond against removal of its antennas, the cost could be $90,000 if the company winds up with insufficient assets to roll down the network. The city could pare that figure by using its own crews for removing nodes from traffic signals, but that would still leave $36,000 on the table. The paper notes that MetroFi tried to sell some nodes on eBay, but I don't believe they had takers.
The Canadian branch of the coffee giant has secured a free Wi-Fi deal for customers: Just as Starbucks American stores are offering limited but free Wi-Fi in about 8,000 stores for its customers through a partnership with provider AT&T, Starbucks's northern brethren are opening its 650 company-operated locations that have Bell hotspots to free use by customers. Terms appear the same as in the states: 2 hours of free use per day with the regular use of a Starbucks Card.
And, as with the AT&T deal, Bell's Internet customers get unlimited access in Starbucks's stores. The deal starts up immediately, as Bell is the current operator. AT&T is transitioning to running Starbucks in the U.S., taking over by the end of 2008 from T-Mobile.
Nikon announces new Wi-Fi camera with Wayport hotspot link, WPS: The S610c with Wi-Fi inside, shipping in September for $330 (MSRP), supports Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) for single button connections to home networks, and a two year subscription to Wayport's hotspot network for uploading photos. This is nearly 10,000 McDonald's and 1,000 hotels, and doesn't include the Starbucks locations Wayport is building out for AT&T. The camera has a 10-megapixel sensor, 3.6x zoom lens, and 3-inch LCD screen, as well as vibration reduction, and up to an effective 3200 ISO.
Oddly, Nikon also announced the $500 P6000 with a built-in GPS receiver, 13.5 MP sensor, 4x zoom, and effective 6400 ISO--and a built-in Ethernet jack. Which is a very weird choice. I know Wi-Fi adds cost and reduces battery life-span, but I would think that GPS plus Wi-Fi would allow assisted GPS for faster coordinated lookups (if the Wi-Fi tapped into Skyhook's system and cached some location information), as well as offering automated uploads, and Wi-Fi positioning when GPS signals couldn't be reached.
Seems like a missed ship here.
HughesNet now delivers 5 Mbps downstream over satellite: The network was previously limited to 3 Mbps down for a whopping $190 or $210 per month, depending on whether you paid upfront for the receiver or not. The new service, ElitePremium (running out of superlatives, eh, HughesNet?), doesn't yet show up in their list of plans, and the press release declines to mention the price, which is likely to be $250 per month based on their other tiers. While that's steep, when the alternative is nothing, paying $60 for 1 Mbps to perhaps $250 Mbps for 5 Mbps downstream could be a lifeline for businesses in the boonies.
Eye-Fi raises $11m in second funding round: I don't cover companies' financial dealings often, but Eye-Fi is always worth highlighting, as they appear to be the only smart entrant in the entire universe of cameras-with-Wi-Fi, and they're not even a camera maker. Camera makers have typically limited or straitjacked the onboard Wi-Fi. Eye-Fi's now three models of SD cards with Wi-Fi built in have a pretty wide range of controls and abilities. I tested out the Eye-Fi Explore recently, which pairs Wi-Fi GPS-like positioning from Skyhook with Wayport hotspot access, and the review appears in Saturday's Seattle Times. Eye-Fi's biggest challenge is better camera integration, so that cameras can handle power management in discussion with the card; camera makers have to not feel threatened by Eye-Fi's smart technology, though.
Eleven people connected with largest data theft operation arrested: The US Justice Department said this will be the largest prosecution, paired with the largest theft, after arresting 11 people alleged to be behind the theft of over 40m credit card numbers from TJX and others, including Barnes & Nbole, OfficeMax, and other firms. The Wi-Fi angle is that the government charges the break-ins involved some of those charged driving to stores with laptops and entering via improperly secured Wi-Fi to compromise poorly designed back-end systems. (Okay, I'm saying "improperly secured" and "poorly designed," since that's self-evident, and was thoroughly documented in the case of TJ Maxx's parent TJX.) Total cost of this break in is in the billions, although it's clear that the companies whose systems were penetrated are culpable in their lack of data security. It's also clear that unless every card were canceled and reissued, this is the theft that keeps on taking. It's likely the reason why my card number (but not card) was stolen back in 2005, and misused.
Sierra Wireless buys Junxion: Sierra is one of the leading makers of mobile broadband adapters, like ExpressCards and USB modems; Junxion is the leading business-focused mobile broadband bridge maker. Junxion has plenty of competitors on the low end, where products are being sold to small business or individuals, but I'm not aware of another firm whose products have the feature list for centralized IT management and deployment. They bundle the cost of this central management into the products, which can accept any kind of PC Card. Well, perhaps not any kind in the future, though Sierra Wireless is likely to have little interest in making Junxion's box less compatible with rivals. But they'll certainly be a lot of good synergy in developing new hardware for the same market that's cheaper or has a different set of features. How about four adapters in one box that can bond connections together for specialized markets, like railroad Wi-Fi?
Delta Airlines says they'll put Internet access on every plane: Delta is the first major U.S. airline to take the full-on plunge into fleet in-flight broadband service. The company said that it will equip 330 planes by 2009, starting with 130 MD craft this year, with Aircell's service. The Gogo Internet offering costs $10 for flights up to 3 hours and $13 for longer flights.
Delta's competitors with broadband interest, like Alaska, Southwest, and American, each have a different plan of attack. Alaska will test service soon with Row 44, which uses Ku-band satellite access, albeit with higher speeds and far lower costs, the company says, than Boeing's doomed Connexion service. Row 44 touts their over-water ability, critical for Alaska, which flies plenty of routes to the great northern state and to Mexico. A test is what's scheduled; not deployment.
Southwest did some deal with Row 44, but nothing further has been forthcoming. Summer's almost over, and we haven't heard more about the "four aircraft" mentioned in the linked press release.
American has the most fully formed plan, but they, too, are testing Aircell's service, and will shortly launch service on 15 trans-continental 767-200s, flying largely routes among SFO, LAX, JFK, and Miami. The company said in the past that they would decide on fleet deployment after the pilot stage.
I shouldn't forget Virgin America, which planned Internet access as part of a set of already-deployed in-flight networked services, but they have under a couple dozen planes at the moment, so they're not a real competitor except on a few routes. Their launch date hasn't been set. Update: Stacey Higginbotham over at GigaOm got the detail from Virgin that Wi-Fi is in place for crew on a few planes now, and will be turned on for passengers by year's end. The full flight will be unwired by Mar. 2009, she writes.
Delta's announcement makes it clear that air-Fi is coming soon, and will likely change how business travelers plan trips. If you can get productive work done during a flight, that changes the financial equation of the trip's cost, and your time out of the office. Pair in-flight Wi-Fi with a cell data card, and you may curse the fact that you're always connected.
Mumbai man's open wireless network used to send bomb claim: An American expatriate, Kenneth Haywood, left his Wi-Fi network open in Mumbai, and police allege it was used to send email claiming responsibility for a bomb blast that killed 42 people. The Guardian reports that Haywood says his email account was also hacked. Police say that someone would need to be within two floors of the 15th-floor apartment Haywood and others occupy, but they may be disregarding high-gain antennas. Haywood's installer demanded he not change his network password.
iPhone tethering application up, down, up, down: The NetShare connection-sharing application from NullRiver has made a couple of appearances on Apple's App Store, the only authorized place from which owners of iPod touch and iPhone devices can purchase software for uncracked equipment. NetShare appears to violate the terms of service for AT&T, although this wouldn't be the case with all carriers worldwide, by bridging 2.5G and 3G network traffic via the Wi-Fi connection on the iPhone. A laptop or desktop needs special configuration to connect to the iPhone, but various reports show it works fine. AT&T offers tethering with other smartphones - but not the iPhone - for typically about $20 more per month, comparable to a national hotspot aggregated subscription.
Speaking of AT&T, they like WiMax as a wire alternative: AT&T is bullish on WiMax, but the fixed kind used to replace wires in places they have no cable.
Cablevision says it's already spent $20m towards its plan to build out Wi-Fi across its operating territory: The cable firm has $300m budgeted to put Wi-Fi in place for its higher-tier subscribers at no cost across Long Islands and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as New York City and Westchester County. Cablevision thinks their network will be good enough to replace cell phones across their coverage, which ties in with the quadruple play many cable operators are aiming for: data, voice, video, and mobile.
Springfield, Mich., puts in its first antennas for a city-wide network: The network is being built with a $750,000 grant from a state development corporation to extend access and improve the business climate. Access will cost $10 per month for residents after an initial free period while the service powers up.
A bill is heading to the US House of Representatives to create a legal ban on in-flight calls: The current ban is regulatory, with the FCC disallowing calls using 850 MHz equipment and the FAA not certifying airworthiness for mobile calls (and not having been asked to do such by the industry, as far as I know). But that's not enough for Congress, and perhaps rightly so.
The HANG UP Act (Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace, cute) will make the regulatory actions statutory. Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio has been pushing such a move to prevent airlines from moving forward on such services despite the overwhelming distaste by American travelers. In Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, there appears to be less concern, and we'll see how it works out when calling starts to become widely available on RyanAir and other airlines by year's end.
AirCell's near-term launch with American Airlines of its GoGo Internet service will use various measures, including crew involvement, to prevent in-flight VoIP.
To enable in-flight calling, OnAir and others place a low-power picocell in an aircraft which handles all the frequencies that could be used by mobile phones. The phones associate with the picocell, keeping their power output low. The picocell could be used to prevent calls entirely, too.