The spat between Massport (Boston-Logan) and Continental reminded me of how I got started covering Wi-Fi in the first place: Back in late 2000, I was trying out Apple's 802.11b-based AirPort system and having my mind blown. I pitched The New York Times on a feature about Internet access in public places over Wi-Fi and they bit. I researched the story in December and January, talking to all of the several extent companies at the time.
This Forbes article predated me by months: June 13, 2000, was the date it ran. It focused on Larry Brilliant, who had founded The Well 15 years before then, and who was CEO of SoftNet. Brilliant received investments from PCCW, Nokia, CMGI (the folks who bought AltaVista from Compaq), and Compaq itself.
Their Aerzone subsidiary, not called that in the Forbes piece, was geared up to launch in October 2000. The article notes something I'd never seen put together before: Nokia's early rollouts in Vancouver (B.C.), Ottawa, and Denver were partnered with SoftNet.
SoftNet pulled the plug on Aerzone in December, three days after I had interviewed the CMO of the division, despite having signed contracts from multiple airlines to deploy service. SoftNet was publicly traded at the time; I can't find a clear story of what happened to them, but they're essentially invisible now, having run through at least the $129 million invested by PCCW (noted in one news story).
Nokia backed out of its airport deals not much later. They found service providers to run Vancouver, and finished building the network at Denver--but it took almost another year, well into 2002, for AT&T Wireless to step up and run an expensive service at that airport. Ottawa eventually shut down its Wi-Fi until relatively recently.
Sky.Link Internet Plus, a Canadian firm, was operating airport Wi-Fi, too, and it disappeared years ago as did Global Digital Media (Boston, Philly, CNN Airport Network deal). MobileStar went bankrupt, selling its assets, including airport Wi-Fi operations, to T-Mobile. Wayport is the only firm of any scale from those days that continues to operate. Concourse Communications, which runs many airports, was a later entrant (though they were negotiating deals back then, apparently.)
Brilliant reappeared in 2002 with Cometa, a company that bragged about building 20,000 access points in two years. The initial press release made clear what later news stories did not: Intel Capital, AT&T Broadband, and IBM Global Services were involved. Intel put in money alongside 3i and Apex; AT&T and IBM were committed to providing services. This was never AT&T + IBM + Intel, despite all coverage to the contrary. This Time article makes it sound like that, to be sure. But here's a much more aggressively skeptical interview by Xeni Jardin.
By March, Brilliant was out--he's an international health expert and said he thought he might be called into duty over bio-warfare at any time--and Gary Weis of AT&T was in. By May 2004, Cometa shut down, never having built a network with significant locations or scale.
CMGI went on to smaller and worse things, now focusing on software. Their corporate history ends in 2002, for some reason. PCCW saw its fortunes dwindle as the dotcom implosion occurred, and now focuses its efforts on a large range of telecommunications services in Asia. SoftNet's current Web site is owned by Integrated WiFi, Inc., an integrator.
The closing line of the story is really the kicker and it shows the optimism (and how much money was flowing) in Sept. 2000: "Such complications will no doubt be straightened out, probably within a year to 18 months. Then Internet access for business travelers will truly be brilliant."