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Centrino: Cometa. Rosedale: Clearwire. And so on: May I be forgiven for invoking the late and largely unlamented Cometa as Intel Capital stuffs $600m (of a $900m total investment) into Craig McCaw's already bulging pockets? Absolutely, I hear you cry.
In July 2002, we first heard about "Project Rainbow," which was launched as Cometa that December; the company said they'd build 20,000 hotspots over two years, though the number was later revised down. The initiative was lauded as a combination of Intel, IBM, AT&T, and two venture capital firms. In reality, as I have tried to remind people ever since, it was Intel Capital (funding), IBM's service division (installation), and AT&T's broadband division (service). None of the companies had anything on the line when Cometa failed.
Intel hopped on Wi-Fi after the train had left the station. By the time they launched Centrino and spent tens of millions on a Centro-verified hotspot branding program, 802.11b was already clearly on the way out. Centrino systems wouldn't get 802.11g for another year, and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security lagged longer with upgrades from Intel that conflicted with manufacturers' Windows XP editions.
Centrino was a huge success from a branding perspective, and Centrino laptops had substantially better battery life while not offering great performance.
Cometa ultimately went belly up in May 2004 after securing just a few hundred hotspots, with a focus in Seattle, and losing the McDonald's bid to Wayport. The Barnes & Noble contract that they had signed just before shutting down was taken up by SBC--now called AT&T. Poetic justice of a sort.
The company suffered from setting unmeetable goals. Their founder, Larry Brilliant, now the head of Google.org, made statements that went far beyond what was achievable in a maturing market, and then left to focus on his hot-zone--as in infectious disease--specialty, leaving the company holding that that bag. Intel had also lost interest in Wi-Fi. It had become an also-ran to WiMax. Wi-Fi had no strategic advantage to the firm given that it was a de rigeur part of every modern laptop.
And that's why Clearwire, my dear friends, is no Cometa.
First, Intel has staked the future of its telecommunications effort on WiMax. They've pushed money into dozens of companies. They've headed standards bodies, built chips, and subsidized a lot of early network development. They've pissed off cellular operators by creating buzz around technology that clearly competes and complements cell networks, revealing some of the paucity of user-oriented thinking in the cell industry. Intel has burned bridges and sown salts in other fields. If they can't make WiMax bloom, heads will roll from the top down.
Second, Intel "owns" WiMax in a way that they didn't with Wi-Fi. Intel didn't make its own Wi-Fi chips and wasn't a leader in the market, which was already four years into development when Centrino shipped. While there are dozens of companies, including some enormous ones who compete with Intel on many fronts involved in with WiMax, Intel has consistently taken a position far ahead of the market and somewhat ahead of the industry. They're not leaving this standard to other people.
Third, Clearwire has a spectrum portfolio. No one can own Wi-Fi, but you can buy pieces of WiMax by having exclusive spectrum rights for regions of the country. Clearwire surely needs more licenses, and I'm sure has a strategy about that, but they can reach 90m people now, they said in their now-withdrawn IPO filing a few weeks ago.
Fourth, the technology isn't unproven or oversold by Intel or Clearwire. There is a lot of hype around WiMax, but I can't find statements in which Intel or Clearwire oversells how the technology will deliver. They're leaving that to other firms. If anything, the two companies are underselling WiMax before they can deliver the goods.
Fifth, Intel Capital has invested something like $1b in WiMax if you include this $600m in Clearwire investment. That's something like at least 50 times more than their Cometa investment.
Sixth, there's a clear market out there for fixed and mobile wireless broadband, which is why there are hundreds of wireless ISPs and billions spent on cell data. It's also why the metro-scale wireless market is so hot, and why Wi-Fi--despite it being not the ideal technology for the purpose--will be blanketing hundreds of cities by the end of 2007.
Cometa had nothing unique over other hotspot operators except a staff split among at least three different headquarters that was much too large and a lack of signed contracts by the time they shut down. Hotspots were on the way to becoming a standard commodity that could be built and resold by a host of firms even as Cometa launched.
Clearwire has a particular set of advantages. They have Intel's attention. They have a chunk of spectrum licenses. They have a technology that works. And they have an audience that wants truly large-area mobile service from anyone but the incumbents--even if that's just for competitive sake to drive prices down.
Clearwire will execute, there's no doubt, and the question will be whether they can acquire enough customers at the right price to turn a profit. Cometa once talked about creating hotspots to such a large extent that they would cover every area in which a business traveler might find themselves. Clearwire has the potential to meet that target and avoid Cometa's fate.
In researching AirFone's history, which dates back over 20 years, I found this Associated Press story in an old telecom journal: The story, filed in Oct. 1982, describes a not-far-off future in which businesspeople would have access to terminals for data exchange using "electronic mail" on board planes and at hotels. (Search for AirFone to find the article in this long set of text journals.)
This most amazing paragraph belies the next 24 years: "An unrelated company, Airfone Inc., hopes to begin testing the nation's first commercial air-to-ground telephone system next month. Assuming the experiment works, Airfone officials say it's a small step from an airplane telephone system transmitting voices to a phone system transmitting computer data." (AirFone was 50 percent owned by Western Union at that point, then sold itself to GTE, which was transformed into Verizon. It's remained somewhat of a separate division from what I can tell.)
This is even sadder: "While there might not be many people carrying portable computers now, that is clearly something envisioned by Airfone. The company says that one day airline travelers will be able to use their own terminal or a portable device provided by the airline to work during flights."
One day 20 years later for Boeing on over-water routes, and what will wind up being about 26 years later not for AirFone, but for AirCell on domestic flights.
Interestingly, AirFone's founder, John D. Goeken, also previously founded MCI, is partly responsible for the AT&T breakup, started FTD (the floral delivery service), and founded another in-flight phone company after selling AirFone--In-Flight Phone Corporation--which used all-digital phone communications with a network operational in 1991. That was the same year that AirCell's business was sparked for air-to-ground telephony, according to their corporate history.
Shades of Wi-Fi in this paragraph: "Dallas-based Travelhost Inc. plans to begin placing small computer terminals in hotel and motel rooms in January. The company is convinced it can entice hotel operators to place 500,000 terminals in the field by mid-1985." (An obscure young reporter named J. Markoff wrote about Quazon in the June 1983 issue of InfoWorld, still noting the 500,000 terminals.)
Suffice it to say, Travelhost's Quazon terminals didn't take off. I was unable to find out what happened via Internet searches. I found a 1983 Wall Street Journal article mentioning a deal with Nynex. There's a May 1983 article in The New York Times written by David Sanger talking about the first 5,000 hotel rooms with Quazon terminals and plans for 100,000 by the end of 1983 in Quality Inns, Hiltons, Marriotts, Sheraton, and so forth. Service would run $3 plus 34 cent a minute (peak time) or 17 cents a minute at night. The device had a touch-sensitive keyboard and no word processor, but included a flight directory, up-to-date news, and some form of email.
The spat between Massport (Boston-Logan) and Continental reminded me of how I got started covering Wi-Fi in the first place: Back in late 2000, I was trying out Apple's 802.11b-based AirPort system and having my mind blown. I pitched The New York Times on a feature about Internet access in public places over Wi-Fi and they bit. I researched the story in December and January, talking to all of the several extent companies at the time.
This Forbes article predated me by months: June 13, 2000, was the date it ran. It focused on Larry Brilliant, who had founded The Well 15 years before then, and who was CEO of SoftNet. Brilliant received investments from PCCW, Nokia, CMGI (the folks who bought AltaVista from Compaq), and Compaq itself.
Their Aerzone subsidiary, not called that in the Forbes piece, was geared up to launch in October 2000. The article notes something I'd never seen put together before: Nokia's early rollouts in Vancouver (B.C.), Ottawa, and Denver were partnered with SoftNet.
SoftNet pulled the plug on Aerzone in December, three days after I had interviewed the CMO of the division, despite having signed contracts from multiple airlines to deploy service. SoftNet was publicly traded at the time; I can't find a clear story of what happened to them, but they're essentially invisible now, having run through at least the $129 million invested by PCCW (noted in one news story).
Nokia backed out of its airport deals not much later. They found service providers to run Vancouver, and finished building the network at Denver--but it took almost another year, well into 2002, for AT&T Wireless to step up and run an expensive service at that airport. Ottawa eventually shut down its Wi-Fi until relatively recently.
Sky.Link Internet Plus, a Canadian firm, was operating airport Wi-Fi, too, and it disappeared years ago as did Global Digital Media (Boston, Philly, CNN Airport Network deal). MobileStar went bankrupt, selling its assets, including airport Wi-Fi operations, to T-Mobile. Wayport is the only firm of any scale from those days that continues to operate. Concourse Communications, which runs many airports, was a later entrant (though they were negotiating deals back then, apparently.)
Brilliant reappeared in 2002 with Cometa, a company that bragged about building 20,000 access points in two years. The initial press release made clear what later news stories did not: Intel Capital, AT&T Broadband, and IBM Global Services were involved. Intel put in money alongside 3i and Apex; AT&T and IBM were committed to providing services. This was never AT&T + IBM + Intel, despite all coverage to the contrary. This Time article makes it sound like that, to be sure. But here's a much more aggressively skeptical interview by Xeni Jardin.
By March, Brilliant was out--he's an international health expert and said he thought he might be called into duty over bio-warfare at any time--and Gary Weis of AT&T was in. By May 2004, Cometa shut down, never having built a network with significant locations or scale.
CMGI went on to smaller and worse things, now focusing on software. Their corporate history ends in 2002, for some reason. PCCW saw its fortunes dwindle as the dotcom implosion occurred, and now focuses its efforts on a large range of telecommunications services in Asia. SoftNet's current Web site is owned by Integrated WiFi, Inc., an integrator.
The closing line of the story is really the kicker and it shows the optimism (and how much money was flowing) in Sept. 2000: "Such complications will no doubt be straightened out, probably within a year to 18 months. Then Internet access for business travelers will truly be brilliant."
...but that name has already been taken: Hugo Gernsback, father of science fiction, is also the father of amateur radio. I discovered while researching early newspaper stories on wireless communications that Gernsback published an early magazine on the topic, "Modern Electrics," imported European electronics gear for amateur radio builders, and organized the Wireless Association of America in 1909 that had 10,000 members within a year. Gernsback estimated that 400,000 amateur radio aficionados were at work in 1912.
Does this all sound a bit familiar? Working with cheaply available equipment, clambering on roofs, and working inside the law while not being subject to regulation, these amateurs--largely boys and young men--spent countless hours messing with technology to extend transmissions. It was some kind of combination of instant messaging, phone phreaking, and Wi-Fi with a distinctly modern flavor to it.
The popularity of wireless led to regulation, of course, as unregulated high-powered output caused enough interference to challenge "legitimate" uses. There are some hilarious stories from these days, including a cover story in the New York Times about a miracle "wireless boy" who could send messages around the world without them being detected--was he using a virtual private network?--and people using so much power to broadcast trivia to each other, such as, "I'm stepping out to tea," that folks in Australia were picking it up from England.
Ultimately, the regulatory power of the government pushed amateur use into specific bands and powers and gave primacy to commercial and governmental licensed use. (Amateur users are licensed primary or secondary users of the bands they live in giving them some fairly strong rights, however.)
It's nice to see that the man that popularized the notion of other worlds, space travel, and science that seemed like magic at the time also helped lead efforts that democratized access to public airwaves. I'm surprised hams don't call themselves hugos, but perhaps Wi-Fi community groups could organize a Huge Urban Galvanizing Organization Seminar in his honor?
From the There's Nothing New Under the Sun Department, coffee houses in the 17th and 18th centuries were the Wi-Fi hotspots of their day: The Economist writes (without byline, as is its wont) about the parallels between the political and editorial foment that occurred in 17th and 18th century coffeehouses in England and, to a lesser extent, France, and how these centers of iquity (as opposed to iniquity, Wodehouse might write) led to the foundation of insurers and publications. In fact, coffee houses were often the mailing addresses for folks before street addresses were common.
It all sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? Wi-Fi hotspots in coffee houses thus have this excellent pedigree. The author of this piece is the same fellow who write the charming and excellent The Victorian Internet, which relayed the development of the telegraph and its effect on the planetary infosphere, and how it paralleled (and predicted) Internet trends, including the bubble. The author is working on a book now about the coffee house/Internet cafe overlap.
The yearly round-up: You'll see long reviews of 2003 elsewhere, so I'll be succinct. What happened this year?
* 802.11g was approved and caught on like wildfire. Despite concerns of pre-ratification release of wonky G devices, it sold hundreds of thousands of units, and firmly put 802.11a into the back seat -- into the trunk, really. Late in 2003, Broadcom's claims (verified in part by Tim Higgins) that Atheros's Super G mode interferes with Broadcom's 802.11g chipsets coupled with the Wi-Fi Alliance's admission that 25 percent of Wi-Fi devices fail their certification test the first time around could make compatibility and interoperability the number one issue in 2004.
* WPA appears. Wi-Fi Protected Access solves security problems, but manufacturers and the Wi-Fi Alliance are still lagging about six months after it started to appear in certified devices in making firmware upgrades available for older equipment and making the whole WPA package appealing, compatible, and simple across different devices -- even those by the same manufacturer. Apple's AirPort Extreme update and Linksys's WRT54G update are good examples: you can only use new, G devices locked in WPA mode with these units, and neither interface has the same options or parameters as the other.
* 5 GHz expands. With 255 MHz more bandwidth and international harmonization, the 5 GHz band is poised to take off as WiMax (a formalization of part of 802.16a) becomes the way to offer point-to-point broadband and backhaul.
* Bridging becomes cheap. More and more devices offer inexpensive WDS-based bridging for expanding consumer and corporate networks.
* WLAN switches proliferate. Too many makers, too many overlapping features, too many big companies that aren't in the space yet. Who will be left standing even with the piles of venture capital that flooded this space? Possibly, whoever Cisco buys in 2004.
* Hotspot market continues to fail to mature. Despite all the predictions and all the build-out plans, the hotspot market continues to struggle to reach the kind of ubiquity that would justify travelers spending $20 to $40 per month for unlimited access. T-Mobile's end-of-the-year partnership with iPass probably marks the real turning point for business traveler access because of iPass's blue-chip portfolio of companies.
* Cell data starts to break 100 Kbps. 3G may not be widespread, but tests in Washington DC and San Diego became deployments, offering over 200 Kbps in real-world tests. Meanwhile, AT&T Wireless becomes the first nationwide EDGE deployer, which can offer over 100 Kbps in the best circumstances, but almost always well outpaces GPRS, 1xRTT, and dial-up "56K" modems.
What will 2004 bring? More security, higher cell data rates, and the final blossoming of hotspots in public spaces.