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« Sleep A Bit More Securely? | Main | Why Software Matters »

December 19, 2001

Public Space Wi-Fi's Transforming Event

The face of public space wireless service changes Thursday as Sky Dayton, founder of the dial-up Internet service provider Earthlink, launches Boingo Wireless. Boingo will build no hot spots. Instead, they are aggregating the network infrastructure of other companies and wrapping it up through a single user account, a single bill, and a single set of pricing. Dayton summarized the new firm's thrust: "Boingo Wireless is a non-infrastructure wireless ISP."

Their initial launch includes over 750 hot spots; Dayton estimates Boingo will encompass 5,000 by the end of 2002. The company did not announce partner networks, but Dayton said that their partners currently represent about 90 percent of hot spots outside of the MobileStar network. (MobileStar filed for bankruptcy in early December 2001; VoiceStream had a proposal to acquire its assets in early January 2002.)

The Boingo model places a software interface on top of the myriad of login and authentication systems used by individual wireless ISPs (wISPs). In interviews conducted over the last two weeks, Dayton said that the software handles and hides the interaction with its partner networks to provide a seamless login. The company has been working on the software since spring.

By requiring client software, initially available only for Windows, Boingo offers a variety of features in one bundle: single user login, WEP key management, Wi-Fi network profile management, preferred network priority, VPN (virtual private network) service to Boingo's public servers, quality of service (QoS) tracking, and connection logging.

Boingo also throws in authenticated SMTP mail service, which allows outbound email service anywhere on the Internet.

A Macintosh version of the connection software is planned for 2002, but the company did not want to issue a prediction for delivery. (Dayton himself is a committed Macintosh user.)

Pricing has initially been set in three tiers: a pay-as-you-go model, which requires a free account setup, at $7.95 per connection (up to 24 hours in a single venue); a medium-usage package offering 10 of these connections for $24.95 per month, and $4.95 per additional connection; or $74.95 per month for unlimited connections. Dayton said that there is no bandwidth cap nor any surcharge for use at any partner location, including hotels.

Phil Belanger, VP for marketing at Wayport, alluded to this kind of charge as part of the panel I moderated on public space Wi-Fi at the 802.11 Planet conference in November. In response to a question about working with iPass's pricing model, Belanger said that Wayport had renegotiated all of its hotel contracts in the last several months to allow a variety of pricing and revenue sharing with hotels.

This new pricing model should ripple through independent networks and partner networks who also run their own account plans. Dayton said, "The pricing that we helped establish in the last nine months as we've been putting all our deals together is very simple: it's not per bit, it's not per minute, it's 24-hour periods."

Although other network aggregators and resellers exist - including hereUare and NetNearU in the specific Wi-Fi space, and iPass and GRIC in the corporate roaming area - Boingo occupies a unique niche. hereUare and NetNearU are working to aggregate small networks, including single hot spots, into a larger whole, then offer back-office billing to those venues. iPass and GRIC started in the dial-up business, making it easier for corporate travelers to find a dial-up, and later wireless or wired connection wherever in the world they are, and pay a specific metered rate for access.

Boingo, on the other hand, wants to brand itself on top of infrastructure, leaving the building to its partners, and taking customer service, billing, fee settlement and roaming, and software development onto itself. The software is what differentiates Boingo from any other firm offering access, including iPass, which has the most sophisticated runner-up. Dayton said that Boingo would certainly want to work with aggregators, although he would not specify which firms Boingo initially had agreements with.

I have not yet had a chance to use the software, but I have seen a preview of its features and functions. It is worth a walkthrough of each of the elements. Each part of the program solves one or more problems for the roaming Wi-Fi user.

The software includes both a network sniffer and a location finder. The sniffer requires card drivers that support NDIS 5.1, the newest version of a protocol that abstracts communication between an operating system and drivers, allowing more robust, consistent, and simple interchange. Vendors are rapidly deploying updated drivers because of XP's support for them. The sniffer can show all networks and their signal strength in the vicinity, and brands any partner networks with a Boingo label (see screen capture). The location finder includes both Boingo partners and free community network hotspots that have allowed Boingo to list them. The software will constantly update its list of locations, checking at each connection, and uses XML-based structures to make downloads and installs quicker and more modular.

Connecting to a Boingo partner requires clicking a button. And that's it. Real-world experience will verify this ease of use, but this is the quintessence of the software and Boingo. Solving the login problem was their first and biggest challenge.

Christian Gunning, the firm's director of product management, said in an interview last week, "Every one of those carriers does authentication differently. Some of them use RADIUS [a standard ISP user login system], some of them don't, some of them use certificates." Dayton added, "We've got this very complex authentication token methodology that we've worked out" that handles each network's individual requirements.

The software also includes a Boingo VPN (virtual private network) client. This is a killer feature, and one I've been hoping a company would introduce. The VPN uses strong encryption to protect data before it leaves the user's machine until it arrives at the VPN server, which decrypts it. Boingo's VPN server sits on the public Internet, so that encrypted traffic is sent over the local wireless network, and through the intermediate network points before it emerges from Boingo's operation center.

This VPN client overrides security weaknesses and compromises that might allow a wireless sniffer or a network sniffer to extract user information before it leaves a local network node.

A future version of the Boingo client will also provide a pass-through VPN service for customers whose home networks already use VPN. This service will connect the user's machine with a static IP from Boingo's operation center so that a VPN user can connect even from networks that use NAT to assign non-routable Internet addresses for local machines.

The Boingo client uses Windows security to password-protect WEP keys for separate networks, and bundles a profile manager as well, similar to that found under Mac OS 9 or Windows XP. The password protection doesn't just protect a plaintext file; it uses the built-in Windows messaging-style encryption to lock the contents down in full.

The integration helps manage these profiles better, and the profiles can be reordered by priority, so that in an area with multiple networks, the priority affects the order in which networks are connected to. Gunning said, "If your office is right next to a Starbucks and you're competing with them for a signal," you just re-order your office network to a higher priority.

The company also decided to solve a traveler's most annoying dilemma: configuring outbound mail service. Most ISPs don't offer authenticated SMTP service or fully support the XTND XMIT option for POP that allows a login to transmit outbound email. Boingo includes its own account-based authenticated SMTP server, which can be used whether on or off its network of partners. This, along with the VPN service, will be available initially for free as part of even pay-as-you-go accounts.

The software displays a log of connections and network information to the user, but it also records a variety of parameters for quality of service monitoring. Dayton said that Boingo will use this information unconnected with user profiles "to first get quality of service on all the various networks." He said, "We learned this at Earthlink" that you don't know what's happening on the system side when people can't get through. "In this case, we're logging everything that happens from the user's perspective."

In focus groups Boingo conducted to better understand business traveler frustrating, Boingo found an almost universal sentiment that broadband would influence a travelers choice of flights and other venues.

For instance, because San Francisco International has no Wi-Fi network but San Jose has full Wayport coverage, Dayton said that 97 out of 100 polled said they "would fly to San Jose if they can." Also, "they'll stay in hotels if they can get high-speed access."

Dayton drew deeply from his Earthlink experience in building Boingo, including the notion of a separate software client. Earthlink early on shipped a tool called TotalAccess, an automatic network configuration tool that also had a list of phone numbers that could be updated - remarkable in a day of manual SLIP and PPP tweaking. (Before that, Dayton recollected buying copies of Adam Engst's landmark Internet Starter Kit book, removing the floppies from the back, individually configuring the software on them for a particular user, and then sending it out to that new user.)

Dayton said that he learned in creating Earthlink that building a physical network is different than running a data layer on top of it. He wanted to split the infrastructure from billing and customer interaction. "Earthlink didn't go out and build modem networks and POPs - we left that to the UUNets of the world," he said.

A related issue was his analysis that no single infrastructure company could dominate. "Even if I had a billion dollars and set up thousands of locations, I could never in my network have a completely ubiquitous footprint."

Instead, he turned to creating partnerships with existing firms who were looking to increase traffic over their networks. "The economics are such that if you own a fixed asset like a network all you're concerned with is loading that network," Dayton said. "The No. 1 problem in the public 802.11 space in terms of financial viability is network loading: getting traffic, and getting revenue.

"Anybody who incurs the underlying infrastructure costs, no matter how much capital they have, big or small, whatever, at the end of the day, they have to rationalize this depreciation, they have to load networks."

Dayton brought over several former top-level Earthlink technology managers. His board includes Stewart Alsop (who gave me my first top-tier freelance writing assignment at InfoWorld back in 1994 when he was editor-in-chief), and John Sidgmore, the former CEO of UUnet. One of the company's advisors is Dave Farber, former CTO of the FCC, and a renowned expert on many technology issues, especially where spectrum and government cross.

Dayton said, "A lot of the little details which separate success and failure we've just spent the last year building. That's all we did; we're specialists."

Early coverage: New York Times (free reg. required) by yours truly, by Ben Charny (a frequent writer on Wi-Fi), and Wall St. Journal (paid reg. requied).

Earthlink Wireless Slashdotted

Paul Boutin tried to suggest to Slashdot this Boingo story, but got beat by an unrelated Earthlink item of interest. Earthlink is offering wireless Internet starting in Atlanta. It's unclear how long Earthlink has offered this service; ironic that Sky's old company hits the top of Slashdot with a wireless story the same night Boingo news breaks.