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This year's HotelChatter look at Wi-Fi: The look at best and worst hotels and chains' Wi-Fi experiences has a great note in the introduction: "...The majority of guests view WiFi the same way--as a must-have amenity, not something they should pay for. This is the conundrum for hoteliers today, how can all this demand for more access translate into a revenue source, without alienating guests?"
Google's global privacy counsel provides a detailed explanation about what data Street View gathers, including Wi-Fi signal information: As I wrote about last week, Germany's data privacy commissioner raised an alarm at Google scanning and recording data about Wi-Fi networks as it drives around snapping Street View pictures. The commissioner is off base in stating that publicly identifiable information is being grabbed, but perhaps it's better that a privacy czar errs on the side of the public at times.
Google's corporate counterpart to that commissioner, Peter Fleischer, penned a blog entry in which he explains in excruciating detail precisely what data is being collected in what fashion.
He writes, in response to the ersatz question, "Is it, as the German DPA states, illegal to collect WiFi network information?":
We do not believe it is illegal--this is all publicly broadcast information which is accessible to anyone with a WiFi-enabled device. Companies like Skyhook have been collecting this data cross Europe for longer than Google, as well as organizations like the German Fraunhofer Institute."
He does not note that Wi-Fi intentionally publicly broadcasts technical information for adapters to use to join the networks. Network users who don't want this information broadcast can disable beaconing (making it a "closed" network), or stop using Wi-Fi, or--to reduce range--even drop signal strength on many routers, or, in the 5 GHz band in some countries, choose a lower-numbered channel that uses far less signal strength than higher-numbered channels.
Two of my favorite companies are working together: Eye-Fi is updating its line of SD card-based Wi-Fi adapters to use Devicescape's automated hotspot login system. This is extremely neat, because otherwise, those hotspots are unavailable for login. Eye-Fi offers a network of 21,000 locations via AT&T (formerly Wayport, which AT&T acquired) already, where the card automatically detects and logs in. The Devicescape deal opens up the card to hundreds of thousands of additional locations.
Devicescape doesn't sell access, but rather lets you store all your network credentials via an account you maintain on its Web site. Any device or computer you use with Devicescape software obtains the right credentials for login when you're at a location in the network. Devicescape also characterizes and provides automated login for open and free locations that would otherwise have a button to check or page to navigate through.
Eye-Fi includes one year of hotspot access in its Explore X2 and Pro X2 models, and those cards will gain access to Devicescape's service in May. On 1 June, you can purchase a year of hotspot service for other cards for $30/yr. Eye-Fi has a special offer until 31 May for Connect X2 and Geo X2 users for $15/yr.
The Geo X2 was announced today, too; it's an Apple Store exclusive. For $70, the 4 GB card includes geolocation, and works seamlessly with Apple's iPhoto software and MobileMe service to transfer pictures and movies. The card also includes the Endless Memory features that deletes images and videos as space is needed that have been confirmed as transferred off the card.
Yes, I know already as a father one shouldn't play favorites. But in the Wi-Fi space, there are some clever firms I've been talking to practically since they started developing products and services in the space. Eye-Fi and Devicescape are two of that select group.
Eye-Fi took an ordinary item, the SD card, and embedded a processor and Wi-Fi radio alongside memory. The company continually improves cards' firmware and desktop software, as well as providing additional useful add-ons. It remains extraordinary to me that camera manufacturers have generally not been able to offer a fraction of what Eye-Fi can with its substantially fewer resources. An increasing number of cameras support specific Eye-Fi features and needs (such as not powering down the camera while transfers are in progress). Eye-Fi is the platinum standard for the industry, while most camera makers are struggling for bronze.
Devicescape has spent years trying to remove the need for users of mobile devices to have to enter tedious data, and enabled equipment with just a few buttons and no touch screen or keyboard to gain access to hotspots that would otherwise be unavailable. Its approach and software should have had an open embrace from Apple in the iPhone OS, and by other phone and gadget makers. Devicescape is still pushing this "many logins, many hotspots, no fuss" approach with new improvements all the time.
T-Mobile takes a unique approach to 5 GB monthly limits on 3G service: Instead of charging overage fees, T-Mobile throttles your data rate after you pass 5 GB. This isn't a penalty, but it eliminates any excess charges. The company didn't reveal how low throughput will drop to, and there's apparently no way to opt to pay such fees and use data until you break the bank.
This is a fascinating move. Carriers used to have a soft 5 GB limit and then canceled service or warned customers or throttled. After Verizon's brush with New York's attorney general over the term "unlimited," carriers started to expose the 5 GB cap; in the last year or so, each carrier decided to let customers exceed it for per MB fee from 5 to 20 cents per MB.
T-Mobile's approach cuts the baby in two, just a bit. You can go over 5 GB, but you won't be charged for it, but you won't get 3G speeds. Apparently. It's possible T-Mobile is reserving the right to throttle, and will only engage in congested areas, or it's using this to study what happens when you remove price sensitivity.
This clearly makes T-Mobile the right carrier if you want to have 3G service and share it among multiple devices via Wi-Fi, like Apple's iPad.
This is in addition to previous price changes from T-Mobile, which reduced its 3G service costs. If you purchase hardware at full retail, you pay $20/mo for 200 MB and $50/mo for 5 GB (no overage); it's $10 more per month if you opt for a subsidized broadband modem. There's no contract required for the cheaper price, either. Rather remarkable.
T-Mobile has also reduced the egregious $0.20/MB overage fee it previously charged--$200/GB--on that 200 MB monthly plan; the overage rate is now $0.10/MB, which is in line with competitors.
New customers can get $10 off the 5 GB monthly price, while existing customers with multiple lines or who add a line get $5 off the 200 MB plan and $10 off the 5 GB plan.
Interesting how Motorola, for its Android phones, will mostly use Skyhook Wireless instead of Google: I've never understood why Google didn't buy Skyhook Wireless instead of building its location database. Google's data, in my various testing and in reports I've read, is far worse for location, possibly because Skyhook's been refining its algorithms for longer. Google picks up Wi-Fi data as it drives to record images for Street View, as far as I can tell; Skyhook seems to be focused on Wi-Fi, although the company collects cellular and other data, too.
If Google owned Skyhook, it would be the primary agent of Wi-Fi positioning data for Apple and a number of other companies, which might be a conflict.
The fact that Motorola is comfortable choosing a firm other than Google for a critical Android function is a nice demonstration of Google's intentional lack of control over Android. Google may be providing location data for free to handset makers and carriers; it's not clear.
Good news! The Class D 700 MHz license has finally been awarded to a major player: PHB Industries. Bad news: It's fictional. Good news: If they were real, they couldn't build the network, anyway. Click to read the whole strip.
Barnes & Noble's Nook 1.3 software update makes the built-in Wi-Fi more usable: The company has finally enabled its promised "Read in Store" option, which connects a Nook automatically to Wi-Fi networks in Barnes & Noble locations, and allows owners to read an ebook in the store at no cost for up to an hour per day. (You can't choose among all ebooks, but some smaller set that's been made available from "more than 200 publishers" including all the major ones.) The feature is still in beta.
The company has also added a test version of a browser, which I imagine is primarily to let owners connect to Wi-Fi hotspots other than those run by Barnes & Noble. Even free locations often require a click to accept terms, or even an account for registration purposes. Boingo users and those with other accounts will be able to log in from a Nook this way as well.
The Nook includes 3G wireless, but when traveling outside coverage areas, inside in a place with weak reception, and outside the US mobile contract area, Wi-Fi will be a big help for getting material. It's unclear whether browser over 3G is included; Amazon allows browsing with an "experimental" tool in its Kindle hardware at no additional charge over 3G.
Der Spiegel reports the German commissioner for data protection says Google is gathering inappropriate information about Wi-Fi networks: The commissioner may have a technical misunderstanding of what's going on here, which would be a shame. Google records Wi-Fi network information when it's driving around cities to gather data for maps and street views. Networks are scanned passively, in the same way in which any device equipped with Wi-Fi looks for available networks.
Google, like Skyhook Wireless and a few other firms, combine the publicly broadcast information with GPS location stamps, and then can use Wi-Fi as either the only or a component of providing a position to laptop and mobile users. Skyhook's data has been used by Apple since 2008, and is widely used by other firms.
For networks in which beaconing is enabled to broadcast a network name, Google grabs the security method, BSSID (erroneously referred as a MAC address, which is quite similar in nature), and network name. All of this is ostensibly public information. If you don't want this information public, however identifying it may be about you, you can disable the beacon (set the network to closed), limit broadcast power, or not use Wi-Fi.
Google pointed out to Der Spiegel that it's been gathering such information for years, quite openly, along with firms like Skyhook Wireless, as well as the Frauenhofer Project, a German company that gathers data for the same purpose.
The commissioner is claiming that Google is capturing and storing information that identify a person. I hardly think so.
Frontier Airlines will equip 32 Embraers by year's end: These are the smallest planes I'm aware of that are getting Aircell's Gogo Inflight Internet service. Frontier flies E170 and E190 aircraft, which are rated to hold 70-80 and 94-114 passengers, respectively, based on class configurations. The airline also operates a number of Airbus planes, and the press release is coy about putting Internet service in those.
The network in Saskatchewan isn't exhaustive: A government-run free Wi-Fi network across parts of three Saskatchewan cities that cost C$1.3 to launch and C$340,000/yr to operate is patchy and inconsistent, according to the Star Phoenix, a local paper. Province officials are generally happy with the performance, which they describe as being useful for "light occasional use." The paper drove around to see how well it worked across Saskatoon, and found dead zones, places where the network came and went, and too weak a signal indoors. In a few areas, the service worked quite well.
A soap opera in St. Louis comes to an end: A provider in St. Louis County outside the main city that promised a novel use of proprietary Wi-Fi gear to build a network across a number of smaller towns is shutting down its operations. I recall hearing about what was once called Network 1 when a reporter from a St. Louis paper called me a few years ago for a sanity check on what the firm was describing. It wasn't unreasonable, but I couldn't figure out why the firm was promoting the proprietary nature of the hardware employed for backhaul. I thought it was likely an inexpensive mesh or long-haul system. The founder left, the firm changed its named twice, and it only built service in one location, O'Fallon, where it has "several hundred customers," out of 15 intended.
Meanwhile, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa region in Israel plots a wireless trial: No business model. No advertisers signed up. Cost estimated at "zero" due to advertising. No ISP chosen. Sounds promising.
AT&T's quarterly update on Wi-Fi sessions fails to mention that most of its locations have free or nearly-free service now: AT&T has very nicely released statistics on the use of its "20,000+" hotspots for some time. It's handy for those of us who write about the business to get some concrete numbers. In the first quarter of 2010, usage was almost 500 percent higher than the year-ago quarter: 53m sessions in all.
But the press release mentions only half of the reason for this increase, in my estimation; more data might belie that. McDonald's switched from a modest for-fee model ($3 for two hours) to fully fee-free in January 2010. This was well advertised, and I can't help but believe it's part of the push. As I wrote in January, "These numbers will completely explode in 2010 Q1, I predict."
At the same time, Starbucks switched from its complicated usage plan for stored-value card owners to far simpler model. In the old system, which aged out in December 2009, you received 30 days of usage (two consecutive hours per day limit) after each purchase or value addition to the card. The company initially announced a change that would keep that limit and add a minimum initial state in which five purchases were needed before activation of the free offer.
But the company got smart and made it simpler. Now, any Starbucks card holder who has made any purchase or loaded value can register the card and get free two-hour-a-day service indefinitely.
Starbucks and McDonald's represent somewhere north of 18,000 of the more than 20,000 hotspots in the network. Neither firm is mentioned in the press release, nor does the word "free" appear. Barnes & Noble's 700+ locations with free Wi-Fi provided by AT&T is also omitted.
I don't mean to be hard on AT&T about this; it's actually a marvelous thing that its major two venue partners wanted to make Wi-Fi more freely available. But it also simultaneously reduces the benefit of an AT&T subscription or service if you can get most of the network for free. Airports, hotels, and other premium locations remain for-fee.
Of course, the other big factor is the continuing increase in users who qualify for free access on all domestic locations as an add-on. In the fourth quarter of 2009, AT&T had 27m qualifying DSL, fiber, remote business, and smartphone subscribers. Three months later, that number is 32m. The vast portion of those subscribers are likely new iPhone purchasers, given that the company is bringing more customers over to that phone from other carriers or other phones; the company said broadband and laptop card subscribers increased only 278,000 to 17.5m, which means that they added nearly 5m wireless subscribers to this pool.
As the company noted in the press release, 69 percent of connections in the last quarter came from smartphones and what it describes as "other integrated devices" (I'm not sure what that category is and it's not defined--the B&N Nook?), up from 35 percent in the same quarter in 2009.
Corporate roaming service provider iPass has added Aircell's Gogo Inflight Internet to its premium services: iPass provides access around the world to hotspots, hotel and other Ethernet, and dial-up service to 3,500 corporations, but airspace has evaded it until now. The deal between iPass and Aircell lets iPass resell Gogo service at retail pricing, but provide it on a single bill with the same account login.
This may seem like a small win, but it's another step towards ready mass adoption of inflight Internet service by regular business travelers. Aircell recently announced a fixed monthly subscription--$35 per month for unlimited use across nearly all the planes currently equipped with Gogo.
That monthly pass may seem in conflict with iPass's a la carte pricing, but it's not. Corporations often turn to iPass or its competitors to provide a more regular and accountable price for access without having to have many different monthly recurring accounts that are pooled and managed, or sign up all the frequent travelers for their own plans. On average, individual sessions could be cheaper when centrally billed.
iPass customers typically set up their systems to use a corporate login across iPass locations integrated and authenticated within the enterprise. iPass lets companies set anti-virus, firewall, and VPN policies which are enforced before a login can occur. Centralized electronic billing records allow better expense tracking as well.
My friend, Cyrus Farivar, filed this report for ABC Radio National in Australia's Future Tense program: Cyrus, who lives in Oakland, but is currently studying in Berlin, takes a look at the Actual Cafe, a coffeeshop that Sal Bednarz opened to bring people into a sense of community in Oakland. Oakland has a high crime rate, and a long history of government neglect and outright animosity. It's a tough place to live, even though plenty of people love living there.
Bednarz, as I wrote back in February (tipped by Cyrus, of course), was dismayed to see that people weren't talking and interacting, but that face-down computing filled his store. After a long dialog with customers, some of it online, he opted for a laptop-free weekend policy. It's not enforced with a heavy hand, and customers seem to like it.
The three firms that own most cable systems in the Northeast US have struck a roaming deal for current and future Wi-Fi networks: I've written extensively about Cablevision, the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut cable provider that's put hundreds of millions of dollars into outdoor Wi-Fi deployment for its customers. Comcast and Time Warner Cable were widely rumored to have similar, perhaps less ambitious plans on the books, and Time Warner Cable has deployed some Wi-Fi hotspots in Manhattan, Queens, and at LIRR rail stations.
The roaming relationship for the three firms allows customers to use their own cable company login to access Wi-Fi across any hotspots operated by the three companies. Because the firms have virtually no territory overlap in service, they can pursue this cooperation as a full-court press against Verizon. Verizon has a paltry and restrictive free Wi-Fi offer that works only for a subset of Windows laptop users.
Providing outdoor data so extensively and free to cable broadband subscribers lets these firms sell "home" broadband as an extended alternative to 3G data pricing plans, whether for the iPad or MiFi or what have you. If you can service in most places you travel over Wi-Fi as an exclusive subscriber benefit, that might offset the $60-per-month plus overage fees cost of a 3G broadband plan (plus the two-year contract commitment).
This announcement doesn't seem like a prelude for Time Warner Cable and Comcast to start building out Wi-Fi in the rest of their respective territories; both have a relatively small footprint in the Northeast compared to the rest of their network operations.
Puts its money where its mouth is: Discount Electronics plans 50 free Wi-Fi hotspots in Austin, with five live now, because it hasn't happened yet on its own. The firm's head, Rick Culleton, said in a statement, "If the city would let us, we'd put free WiFi in the airport and pick up the tab in full."
The hotspots, under the FreeAustinWiFi.com banner, will be in locally owned operations, such as restaurants and bars, and be branded with the company's information.
It's not like there's no free Wi-Fi in Austin, of course, and folks with long memories will recall the community wireless effort Austin Wireless City Project, which checks in with about 50 locations active in its hotspot list.
New York Times's David Pogue finds Cisco Valet doesn't quite meet an admirable target: Following up on my post a few days ago in which I explained how Cisco managed to get a fair amount of attention for releasing yet another "simple to set up, simple to use" home router, the latest in a long, long series of such efforts by the entire industry, David Pogue weighs in on whether it meets the bill (I haven't tested one). His verdict is that the Valet makes a lot of good efforts in the direction of being as simple as the Flip--team behind Flip is responsible for the Valet's approach--but still puts bars in the way of a friction-free and comprehensible installation.
He also notes that the $100 unit has 2.4 GHz built in, which seems inadequate for an 802.11n router. It's a tricky tradeoff. Simultaneous dual-band devices can be made inexpensively, but perhaps not as cheaply as that yet.
Pogue notes, by the way, that Valet creates cutesy names for your network, like MonkeyTree, TinyFish, PeachLion, or HappyDog. This is a clever move. The master key material used in WPA/WPA2 is derived from a combination of the passphrase a user chooses or that's created for him or and her and the network's SSID or network name. There are precomputed databases of common SSIDs, like default and linksys, and pushing a unique combination of words for SSID does both make your network easier to identify and improve security. (Apple has long appended the last six hexadecimal digits of the base station's BSSID--a MAC address-like identifier--to create a unique network name partly for security reasons.
Matt Richtel at the New York Times nails the ire of AT&T customers about the 3G MicroCell: From a technology standpoint, AT&T 3G MicroCell, a small cellular base station that plugs into home or office broadband, seems to be a winner. From the marketing side, not so much. Richtel captures the tone of irritation among AT&T customers who have poor cellular service who have heard that for a mere $150 of their own money, they can improve AT&T's network.
I suspect we'll see far better deals from AT&T that make the femtocell palatable, though, but the firm might be making an error in billing it as something you can do for yourself, when it's clearly for the company's benefit in keeping you as a customer. AT&T should bleed a little more for you to make it work.
As I wrote several days ago, the femtocell is $150, but there's $100 rebate if you purchase a monthly $20 unlimited calling plan (same price for a single account or a family plan). The problem is that the $20/mo rate is pretty poor compared to AT&T's only slightly higher unlimited everywhere plan, and with Internet telephony services.
Given that most home callers are already covered under evening and weekends plans that are unmetered, AT&T should have gone lower, to $10/mo, to make this seem like a better deal. It would be used heavily by home businesses, but the company should prefer customer loyalty and less margin than having that customer switch to T-Mobile (unlimited home calling at $10/mo, faster 3G already deployed) or Verizon (more 3G coverage and more robust indoor phone service).
What I've read in the days since the MicroCell was finally announced is that AT&T will likely try to bundle femtocells into home routers, eating some or all of the cost there in favor of customer retention and satisfaction.
I disagree with one part of Richtel's logic, though, where he notes, "Even though it expects the towers to improve signal quality and take pressure off its network, they could displace landline telephones because wireless consumers will not need a second phone number." That's only true outside of AT&T's home markets. In those markets, if it can compete with cable, then AT&T spends less money servicing regulated voice lines, and makes more money from quadruple-play broadband plus wireless. Outside its competitive wireline territory, AT&T gets to eat Verizon and other firms' landline revenue if the wireless experience is better.
Where AT&T has the greatest risk is in markets in which cable operators provide a better triple-play offer, and customers have no AT&T wire coming into the house, but use AT&T wireless alongside cable service. This gives AT&T the least profit from that customer in its market, and the MicroCell is an incentive to not have traditional landline service.
Aircell offers $35/mo rate for unlimited use of its Gogo Inflight Internet on whatever airline you find yourself on: I can't see how this helps the airlines, given that it reduces loyalty to a specific airline instead of the overall availability of Internet service, but I imagine it will trigger a flood of frequent-flier signups.
The service is contract-free, but automatically renews each month unless canceled. The pass can be purchased onboard most Gogo-equipped airlines (those with a fair number of planes in the air) or in advance. (The pricing page says that it only works on four airlines, but the press release says that it works on all Gogo-equipped airlines.)
Gogo's other 30-day pricing seems a little strange now. $40 buys you a 30-day pass across all airlines, but without an automatic renewal; $30 gets you access on a single airline for 30 days.
Boingo introduces UK plan with unlimited in-empire use: Boingo clearly has a pretty good grasp of costs in North America, where you can get unlimited use for $10 per month, but has always had to keep a firmer grip on international roaming. Its Boingo Global plan costs $59/mo with 2,000 included minutes, a revision back in late 2008 from a previous $39/mo and 3,000 minute offer. But it apparently has enough interest from UK customers to have an entirely new offering there.
The Boingo UK plan is £15/mo for unmetered access to over 5,000 UK hotspots, and £0.09 or £0.13 per minute for access across the rest of Boingo's aggregated hotspot network worldwide.
Boingo now operates service at six major UK airports, with an additional deal at London Gatwick announced today. This gives them the local leverage for roaming with partners to make the finances work, I'm sure. Boingo operates dozens of airport Wi-Fi networks across North America.
The Cloud has a competing, less-expensive offer: £10/mo for multiple devices with one account, or £7/mo for a single device. But The Cloud has about 3,500 locations, all of which are aggregated into Boingo's network.
Delta has 437 of 540 planned planes equipped with Wi-Fi: The company noted on its blog that it's getting close to done, but also revealed that Aircell was clearly seeing enough usage to start adding more transmission gear to towers, thus reducing the number of planes in each covered cell.
I wouldn't have expected this: Piles of reports have appeared from users who can't get reliable connections from an Apple iPad to their Wi-Fi networks. The main problem appears to be that in a place where other devices see a strong Wi-Fi network signal, the iPad apparently only receives a weak one. This isn't just an artifact of the interface: those who run speed tests find the speed highly variable, especially compared to other devices (including iPhones) on the same network in the vicinity. Some users are also getting network disconnections and reconnections.
It's very odd for a new device with Wi-Fi from any firm to have these problems. The Wi-Fi Alliance's certification program has seemingly kept at bay major issues with new devices, by ensuring that interoperability and standards testing occurs before a product goes to market. (Apple is marketing the iPad with a Wi-Fi label, but the Wi-Fi Alliance's products database doesn't yet show a certification on file.)
Apple has posted a support note about an issue with an iPad not rejoining a network that it's already connected to which seems to involve only non-Apple simultaneous dual-band routers in which the same network name is used for both 2.4 and 5 GHz bands with different security methods (WPA on one and WPA2 on the other, for instance).
I expect given the volume of complaints that we'll see a 3.2.1 release of the iPad firmware post haste.
So you might have heard about this thing Apple released on Saturday: I've had one for a day, and while it's marvelous--certainly the best computing device ever produced of its size or nature--there's nothing under the hood to do with networking that's worth reporting on. The iPad handles 802.11a/b/g/n with 2.4 and 5 GHz support for the appropriate standards.
The flavor that adds 3G and a GPS receiver is due "in late April," according to Apple. With the no-contract deal Apple snagged for 3G use with AT&T, I'm curious to see what non-US carriers agree to as 3G iPads are launched in other countries.
Onboard Wi-Fi for a new 95-mile rail system in New Mexico relies on WiMax for backhaul: The folks at Azulstar, working with INX, built out the service, which will be free to passengers, and available along the route and at 15 train stations. Having driven some of that route (Albuquerque to Santa Fe), I reckon that the flatness of the terrain coupled with some mesas and higher points made the install feasible with just 22 base stations.
Azulstar, which I wrote about two years ago for its plan to use a special shared, cheap licensed band to run WiMax services, says it gets 6 Mbps downstream and 4 Mbps upstream.
The company's head, Tyler van Houwelingen, told me via email that the system is redundant and mostly wireless. 5 GHz and 18 GHz are used for backhaul combined with some wired connections along the route, and WiMax at 3.65 GHz (that special band) is used with a 900 MHz fallback. Base stations are powered by solar and electrical with a 24-hour battery backup. Given winter and summer conditions in New Mexico, redundancy won't be extraneous.
Verizon will let you use the Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus Wi-Fi sharing service for free: Verizon was charging $40 per month to use the hotspot software you could download for the two Palm Plus models; it's now zero. Which means you get the functionality of a MiFi without the $60/mo cost of that device for a 5 GB plan. No mention was made of the total data allowed and the 5 cent/MB overage fee for the Palm and MiFi plans.
Palm's fortunes are seeming fairy dismal, with missteps on product introductions and rolling out an application store and the like, even though reviews of its WebOS are generally positive. Verizon now charges just $50 for a Pre Plus and $30 for a Pixi Plus, and some other bargains thrown in, Engadget reports.
Existing Plus subscribers using the hotspot feature will no longer be charged for it. Although you pay a data fee for the Palm, it's about the industry standard at $30 per month.
I don't blame Cisco for pulling this stunt, but the company got mainstream media to buy in: Typical is this USA Today story, which follows the press release that the Cisco Valet is the company's "first consumer router," despite having purchased Linksys years ago and sold tens of millions of consumer routers during that time. The Valet has the same footprint, and likely similar innards with a new skin on top of it as most of the modern Linksys models.
Late in the story, the USA Today reporter notes the Linksys subsidiary, but has fallen for the marketing line that the USB dongle that lets you supposedly easily set up every device is somehow unique to Cisco, new, and exciting. The real news, I suppose, is that the Pure Digital team that made the Flip video recorder, acquired by Cisco, was thrown onto the home networking product line. But that's hardly a revolution in hardware, is it?
The notion of using USB drives (not one that comes with the device, necessarily) goes back several years to Microsoft's short-lived Wi-Fi product line, and some other companies--including Linksys!--let you write settings to a USB drive to move around to computers. (Amazingly, this time support comes in the first version out of the box for both Mac OS X and Windows!)
The notion of making Wi-Fi easy to set up dates back to, oh, I don't know, 1999? And it is far easier. Six years ago, I wrote "Beating the Wireless Blues" for PC World, which explained how to fix Wireless Zero Config problems in Windows XP and other troubles of the time.
At that time, about 35 percent of Wi-Fi routers bought at retail were returned to stores. Cisco says its number today is about 20 percent. (Update: Cisco says that's an industry average, not its experience.) That's closer to the return rate for all personal computer peripherals, but it also explains why Cisco is trying to change the narrative without necessarily offering anything new or different, just a further iteration of industry-wide efforts underway since Wi-Fi's inception.