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« Why Software Matters | Main | Wi-Fly »

December 23, 2001

Solving Problems

I wanted to address a few more issues related to Boingo before we return to the maelstrom of the rest of the industry. There are several distinct problems that average travelers face - even if they're sophisticated business users - when they try to access wireless service on the road. Part of my excitement about Boingo is that I believe if they properly implement everything they plan that they are poised to solve these problems.

1. Finding out where service might be. Currently, branding is relatively hidden and confusing when you enter a facility that may have Wi-Fi. Although a few hot spot finders exist (see list at left) and software like that supplied by iPass provides a list of their partner networks, there's no comprehensive directory. Boingo's location finder includes free community networks along with their partners. I would predict very easily that after MobileStar's current situation is salvaged, Boingo will partner wtih more than 95 percent of public for-fee network locations.

2. Discovering networks in the vicinity. Although a variety of client software supplied by different Wi-Fi card vendors offers discovery, or a scan to see which networks are visible, Boingo's sniffer is more sophisticated. It's even better than Windows XP's huge leap forward in managing Wi-Fi connections. Better still: if Boingo knows the network, it identifies. Not even XP can do that now.

3. Managing multiple locations. Although modern operating systems recognize that people travel, I still find it a hassle to move from place to place and maintain the settings I need. Apple's Mac OS 9 had a superb Location Manager which allowed you to create collections (time zone, TCP/IP, sound, etc.) that you would select based on location. OS X and Windows XP have some options, but they're not terrific. Boingo's profile manager is full-fledged for Wi-Fi, including WEP encryption key management.

4. Storing WEP keys. This seems like a minor point, but the client software I've used for Wi-Fi cards doesn't typically offer enough profile space, nor does it truly password protect the WEP keys: it just doesn't make them visible after they're typed in, but a cracker could easily extract them. Windows XP is certainly better at this task, but Boingo, by integrating it in the profile manager, makes it even simpler.

5. Securing transmissions. The number one fear among those with any anxiety about wireless Internet use is other folks sniffing their private correspondence and other secrets. Because public hot spots are almost universally run without encryption (or if they are, the WEP key is easily available when you want to get on the network), your data is essentially being posted on the local bulletin board. Boingo offers a tunnel out of the local network using strong encryption out to their public operations center far away on the Internet. This ensures your data doesn't shoot out in the open, as it were, until it's in a more remote environment. (This service is initially free, but will be part of a paid plan for non-monthly users.)

6. Sending email on the road. Can I see a count of hands for people who have had to spend more than a few minutes on every trip reconfiguring or messing with their email settings to just simply send outbound email from any connection they're hooked up to, even if it's just a dial-up account? I've spent about 15 minutes on this trip already over a few days. This isn't part of the client software, but it's just as important. Your Boingo account logs you into an authenticated SMTP server, which is available from any point on the Internet. Period.

7. Paying a consistent price. Sky Dayton, Boingo's founder, said their focus groups showed that price point for service was highly elastic. That is, $5 vs. $10 for a business traveler is irrelevant if the service works and meets other needs. But it's certainly true that businesses want predictable pricing: your company might approve a $24.95 per month account with Boingo, but they almost certainly won't approve $200 a month through 30 different providers unless it's mission critical work. Especially because each connection and account is separate: separate credit card choices, separate Wayport and MobileStar accounts, etc. Even better: the unlimited rate offers a unique opportunity for salespeople. Connect at the airport in the morning, the arriving airport when you get there, the coffee shop on the way to a client, the hotel's network, and then back at the airports again. That could be six separate connections or as much as $50 to $60 in today's market. Boingo's offering that for $74.95 per month.

8. Keeping track. Then there's just the issue of knowing when, where, and to what you connected. The current generation of software falls down in this support.

We'll move on to broader Wi-Fi issues in the coming weeks as Boingo's service comes online; their beta software went up a couple of days ago. But I wanted to define the set of circumstances under which this company comes to market and solves the main problems that I've seen with on-the-road Wi-Fi.

Parasitic Usage

I'm currently accessing the Internet by sticking my Apple iBook in the window of the hotel my fiancee and I are staying at in Manhattan. We're on Lexington and 51st, so we're out of the densest areas of coverage. But there is an open AP: no authentication, no information about the company running it. They have at least 768K DSL, maybe a T1. Since I'm here over a weekend, I haven't worried about affecting their operations. Still, it's an odd thing to connect to a stranger's network. Kind of like driving into a neighborhood you don't know, and plugging your RV into an electrical outlet you find at the curbside in front of a house.