Michael Oh may have one of the most unique versions of a free Wi-Fi network anywhere. Oh wanted to extend Wi-Fi around his office, located on a tony stretch of Newbury Street in Boston, and to the shops on the street. He quickly concluded that he would have to charge users too much if he wanted to build a robust and reliable network that customers would pay to use. Instead, he decided to build a free network in hopes that it might serve as good PR for his Mac consulting, sales, and support business, Tech Superpowers.
But building a free network that included more than one access point (AP) would be expensive to maintain because it would require paying for high speed data lines for backhaul. So Oh developed his own network architecture.
"From an economic standpoint, it's an interesting architecture because it's simple," Oh said. "We can put up nine locations with a single T1." At each remote location he uses Apple APs plus wireless bridges from Linksys that were originally designed to wirelessly enable printers. At his central location is an AP with two outdoor antennas, each pointing in a different direction. The remote repeaters look like any type of client to the central AP. "So the AP at our location sees each repeater as nine client cards out there," he said.
Performance on the network isn't designed to support applications like video, given that nine APs share a single T1. "People understand that QOS isn't going to be what you'd get from a DSL line in a house but that's acceptable for something you aren't paying for," he noted.
Network architecture isn't the only interesting component of Oh's experiment, however. He's demonstrating that straightforward Internet access isn't the only reason to have a Wi-Fi network by offering interesting applications over his network. "It's too easy for someone to put in a free AP in the coffee shop next door so from a competitive standpoint there has to be something to differentiate what you have," he said. "Net access happens to be exactly the same from one place to the other."
Oh also has an Internet cafe that offers printing capablility through a solution donated to Oh for testing purposes from a company called PrintMe. Users of Oh's wireless network or Internet cafe customers who want to print can upload a document to a Web site and order a print job. The user will receive a document number via email. They then head to the Internet cafe to the PrintMe box where they input the document number and receive the printed document. Users pay 25 cents per page.
Oh said only a couple of people use the service every week. In a sign of the times, "half the prints that come out of the box are resumes," he said.
Oh's network supports another unique service. Trident, a bookstore covered by the network, offers customers the use of iPaqs equipped with scanners. Users can scan the ISBN number on a book and the service, supported by SmartWorlds, hits Amazon's servers for information about the book, including reviews. The users can also read a list of other books that readers of the scanned book recommended. They can also use the service to send an email to themselves with a list of interesting books that maybe they weren't ready to buy yet. Trident is an Amazon affiliate so if customers later buy any of those books from Amazon, Trident gets a commission on the sale.
Oh believes that hotspots owners that charge users for the Internet access probably won't develop such interesting applications--they're too focused on making money from straightforward Internet access. "Those services I think will be very key to actually provide some sort of value to the user," he said.
Oh kindly offers to help out anyone else who wants to build a similar type of free wireless network via step-by-step instructions available for free on his site. This one spells out the business model and this one details the technology behind the network.