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« Sirius Rejoinders | Main | A Cerulean Byte »

March 19, 2002

Streaming Through the Multiplex

First wireless movie theater? It's not what you think: the Austin Wireless Group announced today that the Alamo DraftHouse Movie Theater at 2700 W. Anderson Ln. in North Austin, Texas, has full Wi-Fi access. (They thank a bunch of the usual suspects, too: Jim Thompson of Musenki, Hem Ramachandran of Marlabs, and Dan Vogler of WireHead who donated equipment, time, and expertise in the name of the AWG.). From the press release: Typical theaters may not work well for this concept, but the Alamo DraftHouse has table seating for movie goers, so they can order drinks and food while watching the movie. So Internet use would not add anything more to the tolerated commotion that already exists with wait staff taking and delivering orders to the crowd. The group invites all comers on March 25th for Revolution OS.

VoiceStream to market GPRS + Wi-Fi products in 2003: in an even clearer signal about VoiceStream's moves forward, the firm's head announced at the CTIA conference yesterday that the company would be offering hardware that would support both GPRS and Wi-Fi. VoiceStream also announced a deal with Nokia to build out its EDGE technology which will offer high-data rate GPRS. Nokia has been working aggressively to provide cell telcos with combined GSM/GRPS/Wi-Fi systems, which may ultimately be part of this deal.

Add this to your lexicon: HotZone: WiFi Metro and the fixed wireless ISP Gatespeed Broadband have partnered to cover six city blocks in downtown Palo Alto in what they're dubbing a HotZone. They note, The HotZone’s reach extends from as far West as the University CalTrain Station and as Far East as the intersections of Ramona and University Avenues. For a limited time, users can test-drive the HotZone by obtaining a free trial pass from the WiFi Metro website.

I am Curious, Wireless

In mid-January, I had the pleasure of meeting Carlo Cassisa, the director of business development for HomeRun, a division of Swedish cellular operator Telia dedicated to public-space Wi-Fi service. With Carlo was Lars Jansson, a manager in the same division. (Workload has prevented me from writing this up before now; my apologies!)

Lars and Carlo were traveling around the U.S., testing hot spots and meeting with people involved in or writing about wireless networking. By the time I’d met them, they had already spoken to almost everyone I know or know of in the industry, and they’re two of the most charming businesspeople you’ll ever meet. (The lack of indoors smoking opportunities in Seattle was obviously a problem for them, but they handled it with élan.)

They even confessed to me that they had figured out how to end-run the authentication software in the hotel (which I won’t name) that they stayed in in Seattle for Wi-Fi access. Sorry, guys, your secret is out of the bag!

We spoke for nearly two hours, and it was clear to me that Telia HomeRun, at the very least, was a lightyear or two ahead of understanding what consumers want from integrated wireless. Part of this stems from the difference in experience with cell phones that Europeans and Americans continue to have, although that gap will probably close by early 2003.

Carlo explained the real impact of short messaging service (SMS) to me in terms of bulk: billions of messages exchanged. People are completely comfortable using their tiny, well-designed Nokia and similar handsets to punch in small sequences of text. This training and utility makes the European (and Japanese) markets primed for an expansion.

Contrast that with Americans’ experiences with WAP, which Jakob Nielsen and the Nielsen Norman Group effectively killed development on when their report came out that even with days of experience and a motivated test group, most people couldn’t or wouldn’t complete a few simple tests, like retrieving the weather forecast for their city.

Among other services that Carlo described, Telia FriendFinder, a service in which when parties opt-in to include each other in their list, the cell system notifies you when someone is nearby who is in your list. The size of the cell determines how close the person is; in cities, the granularity is much higher, so you know your friend is maybe a few hundred meters away.

Carlo cited impressive penetration figures for Sweden with 400,000 households having broadband service of some kind out of 4.5 million household overall. This is partly impressive because of the higher cost relative to U.S. pricing and cost of living.

Part of HomeRun’s strategy for public-space deployment has been to track where people are likely to need a stopover point. For instance, they have built 25 to 30 hot spots in road restaurants, which I believe are the equivalent of those stopovers in turnpikes in the U.S. Because of the size of the country, travelers can be sure that they will hit a hot spot every 15 to 150 miles. Even better, they can use a cell-based yellow pages finder to see where the nearest hot spot is, whether on the road or in a city.

You can use SMS to a number, 4400, and request information from yellow pages based on your current location. If you use a new number, 4488, you get a set of driving directions.

Stockholm has about 30 Telia hot spots alone, meaning that you’re never far from one in th city.

The pricing for HomeRun is quite interesting, and might be useful knowledge for U.S. providers. The base rate is about US$30/month and US$0.24 per minute. A flat monthly rate runs US$150.

This compare to US$30 per month for 512K DSL and cell phone rates of US$0.05/minute for evening calls (6 pm and later). HomeRun also sells 24-hour access cards which work throughout their network for about US$12 (120 krona). The cards use a scratch-off strip and then a code you enter. The scratch-off part enables merchants to have an inventory of cards on hand which they can return or keep safe without shrinkage unless they are actually stolen (at which point, the specific numbers are known). Having just a list of codes or using a gateway page are both much less convenient and prone to theft.

Carlo pointed to the utility of paying several dollars as a Wi-Fi day rate in pointing out that when he had to send a five-page document to Sweden recently by fax from the U.S., he spent $24 to send it from his hotel (or rather, that’s what they wanted). He said, “I park my car in the hotel garage for $19/day.”

The Swedish government is working on a program to lease computers to individuals in a country where computer literacy is very high. Carlo expects that may increase Wi-Fi use as one of the lease options is a laptop configuration.

Carlo also echoed a point about public space Wi-Fi I’ve heard frequently. We’re all spending more and more time in airports. With Wi-Fi access, getting things done in the airport “gives you more time.” You can finish work away from the office. He said, “Our belief is that this helps people” by reducing their out-of-job-time workload.

Carlo brought up another good example on the issues around Boingo and other pricing models. He said that for a large-scale business, a mid-level employee who spends a fair amount of time on the road might cost the company US$10,000 per month overall for travel, benefits, support, and salary. So what’s $10,150 versus $10,000 per month if you get extra hours of work out of that employee? “Can I save something on that?” No.