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June 20, 2001

Public Wireless Network Round-Up

For-Fee Networks

This article hadn't been updated for a few months, and I had the chance to a long version of it for The O'Reilly Network, which you can find . For archive purposes, I'll leave the version below.

Archived version of article as of 11/02:

In Feb. 2001, I filed a long story (free reg. required) for The New York Times on for-fee wireless network providers. As the year progresseed, I've been tracking these networks' progress, and late last year, I filed an update on the progress of wireless deployment in airports (free reg.) for the same newspaper.

The slowdown of the economy put the kabosh on several of the networks I was tracking, and changed the deployment rate of others. The original projections for growth by the providers (wireless ISPs) profiled in Februrary now appear somewhat grandiose.

The latest trend appears to be a more conservative growth as wireless ISPs shift their costs from their own capital base onto their partners, such as hotels and conference centers. In the case of airports, the port and airport authorities have influenced and slowed this process after being burned one or more times by firms that shut down operations or changed business models after signing agreements.

Nonetheless, industry analysts, wireless ISPs, airport authorities, and many others say that ubiquitous Wi-Fi is inevitable as it becomes expected by business travelers. The cost may cause hotels and others to delay full installation for months or a year or two, but the expectation is that by 2005 at the latest, virtually all business venues will have Wi-Fi or similar access.

The ongoing confusion over emerging wireless flavors, and Bluetooth's ultimate impact and installed base, has also slowed some deployments. Many wireless providers are talking openly about installing two-or-more-flavor hot spots. Concourse, for instance, may put in Bluetooth hot spots (small areas of access for the very short-range protocol) and ubiquitous 802.11b service.

Another factor preventing the growth in usage of wireless ISPs themselves has been their account and access policies, requiring a separate account for each network. Roaming would allow users of one wireless ISP to pay a per-minute fee or have inclusive access to other wireless networks without a separate logon identity, just as cell phone users can generally roam without a hassle.

Network roaming is still an issue, but less and less every day as individual wireless ISPs join or partner with aggregators, like iPass and hereUare Communications. Boingo Wireless is one of the highest-profile, focusing entirely on wireless (iPass does dial-up, too) and 24-hour sessions as the basis of their service. (Note: hereUare was up for sale or shut in late July 2002.)

iPass works mostly with companies that have employees who travel around the U.S. or the world. They have relationships with many dial-up, wireless, and wireline ISPs, allowing their customers to run a small software client (with embedded virtual private network or VPN software) that connects them reliably and securely wherever they are in the world at a known cost. iPass has a deal with Wayport to use their network, and is providing the back-office billing and account management for Concourse (see more about Concourse below).

hereUare billed itself from its start as a wireless back-office firm that would allow individual outlets up to national networks to outsource some or all of their billing and account management or just join up with a network of partners, allowing simple roaming. hereUare's backers are identical to the investors in WiFi Metro which purchased AirWave's remaining outlets in early November 2001.

Boingo Wireless has partnered with Wayport and several other wireless ISPs to offer a single branded service using those hot spots as their network, and a client software package (with a VPN and authenticated SMTP) to handle the complications with authentication.

Plenty of regional ISPs now provide wireless links to their consumer and business customers. It's likely that as roaming becomes simpler and integrated that these ISPs will convince retail outlets to join a network as a method of increasing revenue as well as allowing the ISP more coverage for its existing customers.

Here's the overview of all the current large-scale providers in North America. (Please excuse the regional bias: exciting deployments are happening internationally as well, but they're tougher for this Seattle-based correspondent to track. Watch for reports outside the U.S. and Canada soon.)

AirWave, in February, seemed primed to expand beyond their coffee shop and restaurant base in the San Francisco Bay Area - but the crash hit them just as they started their expansion. Funded by idealab, AirWave listed fewer and fewer locations on their Web site until Nov. 6, 2001, when they sold their network to WiFi Metro.

Concourse Communications launched its network in March 2002 at Minneapolis/St. Paul's airport. That airport has the benefit of high-speed access over fiber, allowing Concourse to focus on contracting out installation. Concourse also outsources its billing and account management to iPass. They don't have to re-invent any wheels. The next airports slated for installation are the three metro New York terminals: LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark. Earlier timetables indicated tests by late summer 2002.

Global Digital Media told me back in Feb. 2001 that their deal with CNN would put them in more than 30 airports in the next year. They claimed at the time to have kiosks in Boston and Philadelphia airports. In the months since, however, they issued no new news. When I was writing my New York Times article in Nov. 2001, I could not get my phone calls or emails to them returned. The firm's Web site has been inactive since Oct. 2001 at least.

T-Mobile Wireless Broadband (formerly MobileStar) leapt into the highest-profile spot through their partnership with Starbucks. The company had deployed 700 outlets by summer 2001 before their funding dried up. VoiceStream, in the middle of a T-Mobile rebranding by its parent company, Deutsche Telekom, bought the assets, and rebranded the Mobile Star service as well.

T-Mobile's acquired network is valuable and should continue in operation regardless of the company's specific future. They have Wi-Fi hot spots running in 17 airports through American Airlines Admirals Clubs (some airports having multiple locations). They also have full-terminal coverage in Austin and Dallas/Ft. Worth, with limited hot spots in smaller airports such as Burbank. All of its hotel properties are using an older standard called OpenAir, which is not compatible with the 802.11 or 802.11b specs. (The status of this hotels continues to be uncertain--are they still operating?)

Nokia (no Web site for division) operates a single airport in Vancouver, British Columbia. Nokia has built out the networks in Denver, Ottawa, and Vancouver, and their initial partner in Vancouver exited that particular approach. Nokia took over that airport on its own, and is still seeking a partner for Denver, which has ubiquitous coverage through the majority of all terminals and waiting areas. Ottawa is operated by Sky.Link Internet Plus (below). Nokia has halted work on more North American locations, focusing on partnerships in Europe with cellular providers who want to deploy 802.11b and similar data networks that mesh with 2.5G and 3G (updated current generation and next-generation) cell data services.

Sky.Link Internet Plus slipped by my attention in Feb. 2001, although they have offered wireless service for a couple of years in many venues. Sky.Link serves the Ottawa airport, as well as hotels and other locations throughout Canada. Because the firm chose to offer either an hourly rate (Cdn$10) or a monthly subscription for fixed amounts or unlimited access with an initial 12-month term, dropping into a hotel to use their service near an airport is a practical possibility. They plan continued slow growth as demand and partners require it. The company disappeared from view in early 2002 for several weeks; when they returned (after suffering a dead Web site, bouncing email, and not returning my calls), the Calgary Airport was no longer listed among their hot spots.

Surf and Sip has focused on locating its dozens of hot spots in restaurants and similar locales near prime interchanges, using a business model that can combine wireless drop-in use with Internet cafe service. This allows them to get fees (and share them with venues) from unlimited monthly subscriptions as well as horly rate for use. The company also happens to have an access point in a railroad station my dad used to own, back when it was a furniture store. Surf and Sip is slowly expanding nationally outside of its San Francisco base using a simple authentication server combined with a basic access point which allows them to do perform offsite installations cheaply.

WayPort is a major player with hundreds of installations around the country, including entire chains of hotels with which they have relationships.Wayport purchased nine Laptop Lanes locations a few weeks ago in five airports, including some they already provided service to. (They have full access across Austin, Dallas/Ft. Worth, San Jose, and Seattle/Tacoma airports.) The Laptop Lanes locations are wireline T1 which Wayport hopes to convert to wireless over time in conjunction with the various airport authorities.

WiFi Metro launched about Nov. 6, 2001, with the same financial backers as hereUare. At launch, the company had the 20-odd outlets of AirWave, which they acquired, and 40-plus partners or locations, including airports in Georgia. Read more about the firm in this article I wrote Nov. 14. In late July 2002, the company indicated it was up for sale or would be shut down.