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Recent Entries

Starbucks Pumps Digital Content in Stores
Cafe Cuts Power for Pennies
Boingo Wireless Updates Client, Adds Free Networks
New Standard Eases Carrier Wi-Fi Access and Roaming
LiveTV Enters Inflight Wi-Fi Market
Will Regional Mobile Competition Thrive?
AT&T Acquires T-Mobile for Customers and Spectrum
Boeing's Wi-Fi Interference Problem
Report Indicates Obvious Wi-Fi Conclusions
Aircell Discusses Future Speed Bumps

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March 2011 Archives

March 23, 2011

Starbucks Pumps Digital Content in Stores

By Glenn Fleishman

Starbucks Digital Network adds The Economist, ESPN site, Marvel, and Mediabistro: It's an interesting potpourri of additions to the free content you can access on Starbucks in-store Wi-Fi network. Starbucks took its network entirely free without time limits last year, and started up the SDN. I certainly commend them for including The Economist, which has a pricey but reasonable annual fee for digital or print/digital access. (I write regularly for The Economist's Babbage blog, which you can read at no cost anywhere.)

As a comics fan, I may wind up spending too much time reading through the digital library, which the press release says is available without restrictions starting 23 April 2011. 'Nuff said.

Starbucks has quietly amassed a fairly huge array of publications and resources, including the New York Times (via its special eReader edition),, USA Today, and Rodale fitness and health titles.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 4:16 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Free, Hot Spot | No Comments

Cafe Cuts Power for Pennies

By Glenn Fleishman

Coffee Culture's cents-less argument: I sympathize with Yvonne Johnston, the owner of Cofee Culture in London, Ontario, Canada. She is tired of table campers who occupy a four-top, blocking other customers, and have the temerity to bring in coffee from another shop and not make a purchase while using the free Wi-Fi.

I sympathize because I've been writing stories about such concerns for at least seven years, if not longer. But her argument is unique. She's telling customers that she can't afford the power, and she tells patrons they can't use the outlets.

She says she knows her hydro (Canadian for power, even when it's nuclear or otherwise) bills keep rising, but I'm afraid she hasn't done the math. A large, modern 90-watt laptop drawing full power consumes 1/10th of a kilowatt-hour (kWh). Toronto Hydro says its time-of-use pricing ranges from 5 to 10 Canadian cents per kWh.

A laptop user whose machine is pulling the full draw for battery charging or active use thus costs her one-half to one Cdn cent per hour of use. Given what I can tell of her shop's size, even 12 hours a day with 10 laptops in use should cost her no more than a Looney a day. More likely it's less than 25¢.

While her electrical argument doesn't hold water (and we shouldn't mix electricity with water), her business one is perfectly sensible. She needs customers who treat her shop like a shop, and not a library. She needs customers more respectful of the notion that taking a table for four and using it for hours on end takes real dollars—many tens of dollars of a day—out of her pocket.

I've heard all manner of approaches to stop table camping. Signs, barista enforcement (employees don't love that much), turning off the Wi-Fi during busy hours or on weekends, and so forth. What it amounts to, unfortunately, is that some subset of people will always do what's convenient to them rather than to the venue in which they plop themselves. They won't be shamed. You have to cut them off.

Starbucks lacks this problem because the vast majority of its customers pass through, and in busy areas it tends to have a greater density of store locations or more seating in stores.

Ms Johnston might revise her sign. Drop the hydro argument. Instead: "We don't allow use of the hydro because we find we cannot keep in business and provide power, too."

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 4:11 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Cluelessness, Hot Spot | 1 Comment

March 22, 2011

Boingo Wireless Updates Client, Adds Free Networks

By Glenn Fleishman

Boingo Wireless's new client software identifies and connects to free networks, too: I've been testing for several days Boingo's new Wi-Finder software, a lightweight client for Mac OS X and Windows that identifies and can automatically connect to 325,000 paid locations in Boingo's network or hundreds of thousands free locations. The app is also available with slightly different features for Android and iOS. A subscription is not required, and it's available now at no cost. The software also includes a Wi-Fi search function.

Boingo Wireless now offers three levels of membership with the new client. A free membership allows use of the client to connect to locations that allow access without a fee. The previous pay-as-you-go and subscriber levels remain the same. Pay-as-you-go users need to provide a credit card number, and receive a week of service. The client provides details about cost before a connection is made. For subscribers, the client automatically connects to in-plan hotspots, and provides details about costs associated if you're outside a home network. For subscribers in the Americas to the unlimited plan, fees are only required outside of the Americas.

For free networks, Wi-Finder interprets any splash or terms and services screen and allows a user to accept whatever restrictions are necessary automatically, or manually agree each time. Boingo learns adds new free locations based on subscribers' experiences, thus allowing subsequent visitors to the same connection the chance to autoconnect. I used Wi-Finder on a trip by Amtrak from Seattle to Portland last week, and after "teaching" it by clicking the Agree the first time, the software appeared able to connect on demand thereafter. (Which was useful, as Amtrak's service provider doesn't appear to retain MAC addresses for reauthentication after a device is put to sleep.)

The requirement of a membership confirmed via email for free accounts allows Boingo to meet requirements in many countries for a basic level of accountability and tracking.

From the security standpoint, the client prevents accidental connections to ad hoc networks so that you won't get bit by the "Free Wi-Fi" network phenomenon, in which unconnected Windows XP systems accidentally broadcast that network name.

Boingo is mimicking and expanding on a strategy first developed by Devicescape, which offers Easy WiFi connection software for Mac OS X, Windows, Android, iOS, and Nokia platforms, and is integrated into consumer devices, including the Eye-Fi camera card. Devicescape doesn't have a reseller network, but allows its users to enter credentials at individual networks (like AT&T or BT OpenZone) or aggregators (like Boingo) and automatically log in. Devicescape also manages connections to free networks.

Prices vary with pay as you go for hourly and daily service depending on region, but start at $4.95 for 1 hour or $7.95 for 24 hours in the Americas. Boingo's monthly subscription plans start at $9.95/mo for unlimited service in the Americas and mobile/tablet plans are all $7.95/mo. Prices are higher outside the Americas and may include limits. Many bundled plans (like mobile and laptop) are also available.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 3:05 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Free, Hot Spot, Road Warrior, Roaming | No Comments

New Standard Eases Carrier Wi-Fi Access and Roaming

By Glenn Fleishman

The Wi-Fi Alliance, mobile operators, and hardware makers have agreed on a standard for secure and greatly simplified cell-to-Wi-Fi handoffs and cross-networking roaming: The various parties have worked together to create a certifiable method of allowing handsets to access carrier Wi-Fi networks with much less fuss. The standard will also allow simple roaming across carrier networks without the current necessity of creating an account or entering account details. The whole thing is backed by WPA2 security for the Wi-Fi connection, obviating Firesheep, sidejacking, and other compromises on the wireless connection.

For carriers, this means avoiding re-inventing the wheel for every handset or platform. Carriers can buy and integrate gear from companies that have achieved this certification, and that should take them a long way towards allowing every device a carrier offers with Wi-Fi to be able to offload traffic from mobile broadband to Wi-Fi as efficiently as possible.

The Wi-Fi Alliance cites research group Informa as predicting 4.6 yottabytes (4.6 million terabytes) of data will be consumed on cellular networks in 2012 worldwide. The Wi-Fi Alliance predicts its current count of 750,000 hotspots worldwide (which must be measuring only paid and managed locations) will double by 2014. There are millions of less formal hotspots available which won't be affected by today's announcement.

One of the tidbits in the announcement, not particularly emphasized as a pair, is that certified devices will connect to appropriate networks "in many cases" using cellular credentials like SIM cards, and using WPA2 security. What that says to me in big flashing letters is WPA2 Enterprise with EAP-SIM. That's just how geeky I am about Wi-Fi.

WPA2 Enterprise is a Wi-Fi version of the 802.1X port-based access control that limits access to a network quite effectively until proper credentials are presented. In WPA2 Enterprise, only WPA2 (AES-CCMP) encryption is allowed. EAP is a simple communications language that's used by 802.1X to send messages back and forth. It's not secured by default, and must be, because the messages contain credentials. PEAP, EAP-FAST, and EAP-TLS are all popular corporate methods of securing the handshake for logging in.

EAP-SIM is one of the required methods for any approved Wi-Fi device for several years, and uses the SIM (or, I believe, similar modules on other networks) to provide the identity wrapped in a secure method.

Using EAP-SIM with WPA2 Enterprise would allow a feature phone, smartphone, or other cell-embedded device or modem to create a secure connection across the local Wi-Fi connection without a user being involved in any part of the login procedure.

The financial side of roaming across carrier networks wasn't discussed today. I confirmed with the Wi-Fi Alliance that that's a separate discussion as any kind of mobile and data roaming is today. I fear for that particular area. Cellular carriers outside of the same home country charge unjustifiably high rates for roaming: the carrier allowing a non-native customer to roam marks up its service enormously, and the roaming customer's provider adds on top of that. In the modern world, the cost is fairly tiny on the back-end to allow roaming. It's simply a high-margin profit center, and one that European Union regulators have slashed away at. Regulators in other countries lack the cross-border controls or the regulatory interest to get involved.

My fear therefore is that carriers will act like carriers do, and charge extremely high amounts of money for something that benefits from greater use rather than higher prices. Carriers should be encouraging the roaming use of Wi-Fi, a resource that's much cheaper to operate and has vastly more bandwidth in small areas than a cellular network can more expensively provide.

It will probably be more of the same, no matter how technically elegant.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 2:23 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Cellular, Roaming, Security | No Comments

LiveTV Enters Inflight Wi-Fi Market

By Glenn Fleishman

United Continental plans to put LiveTV's satellite-backed Wi-Fi on 200 planes: United says it's signed a letter of intent with LiveTV to bring Ka-band satellite-backed Wi-Fi service onto over 200 of its 737 and 757 planes starting in 2012. United only offers service now (via Aircell's Gogo) on 14 aircraft.

Why 2012? The satellite that LiveTV will use hasn't been launched yet. From previous experience with the long delays in Inmarsat's 4G BGAN satellite launches, betting on having a bird in orbit is fraught with difficulties.

This all seems a bit odd. Next year is a long way off when competitors like Delta have Wi-Fi today. Relying on an unlaunched satellite is tricky, coupled with a firm that doesn't yet provide Internet service, and with the "over 200" and "starting in 2012" qualifiers. United won't have substantial Internet service on its planes until 2013 or 2014 based on all these factors.

It's a way to issue a press release like something is happening.

The letter of intent part is interesting, too. Alaska had a letter of intent with Row 44, but ultimately opted for Aircell instead. Connexion by Boeing had many letters of intent; few were executed.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 12:53 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Air Travel | No Comments

Will Regional Mobile Competition Thrive?

By Glenn Fleishman

If the AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile is approved, does this lead to fiercer regional competition? There are plenty of small regional cellular firms that provide islands of access in specific metropolitan markets, some of them in several. Those, too, have been bought up by the big four in the last few years, but there are still plucky upstarts remaining, like Cricket.

Cricket has incredibly cheap service in its markets; you only pay through the nose when you travel. While many people travel far from home on a regular basis, there's a hefty number that don't need nationwide roaming. There's also Leap, MetroPCS, and US Cellular, to name a few. An AT&T spokesperson wants this conversation to happen, pointing out that 18 of 20 metropolitan markets have five or more cellular options. These aren't MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) who resell network access, but rather competitive network operators who operate their own infrastructure or lease infrastructure from third parties.

The most significant difference between regional and national carriers lies in 3G networks and 4G plans. MetroPCS launched a 4G LTE service early, and the regional firms all have 3G data services and reasonable plans. Cricket's mobile broadband plan is $40, $50, and $60 per month for 2.5 GB, 5 GB, and 7.5 GB of usage, respectively. US Cellular includes 5 GB with its Data Plus offering for smartphones (including Android models). One calling plan is 450 minutes, unlimited texts, GPS navigation, and Data Plus for $70/mo. No national carrier has such a sweet deal.

I wonder if the availability of small and often cheaper competitors will spark more an interest among customers as they find themselves navigating plans from what would be the three remaining national providers. I expect the iPhone, iPad, and specific models of Android and Windows phones drive the national market more than smaller carriers would like.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 11:14 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Cellular, Financial | No Comments

March 20, 2011

AT&T Acquires T-Mobile for Customers and Spectrum

By Glenn Fleishman

AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile lets it build a truly national, robust network at the expense of competition: It's a little dirty but barely a secret in modern mobile cell world that AT&T doesn't really have national 2G coverage, much less 3G. AT&T leans on T-Mobile to roam customers in a large number of areas in which AT&T didn't spend money to build out service. This stems from an agreement years ago when AT&T Wireless consolidated on GSM service, and T-Mobile was building out its initial GSM service. In 2004, the companies dissolved a cooperative agreement (when Cingular bought what was then AT&T Wireless), but roaming never disappeared.

This lack of coverage is why AT&T didn't offer feature phone or smartphone service in large parts of the country outside urban areas. While these were mostly rural—such as Montana—you'd also find missing areas in adjacent cities in some markets. Because AT&T, like other carriers, only allows a fraction of one's usage to be on domestic roaming, you had a lot of peeved would-be customers who now own a Verizon iPhone

T-Mobile provided roaming 2G coverage in a lot of those areas, even though AT&T spent billions in 2009 to acquire licenses Verizon Wireless was obliged to sell to clear its deal for Alltel, the number five US carrier at the time. Still, AT&T will benefit from having consistent national service if the T-Mobile merger is approved by regulators. It's not a done deal.

AT&T also gets the depth of T-Mobile's spectrum portfolio in dense markets where AT&T clearly lacks the ability to deliver service to the level needed, such as New York City's boroughs and San Francisco. It won't be trivial to integrate the networks, but many carriers co-locate equipment with tower and building owners. And if they maintain the current deal and roaming is no longer a for-fee arrangement, AT&T can instantly get the benefit.

Both firms aligned across the same technology. Not just GSM, although they're the only two national GSM in the US. But they both chose to push short term on faster HSPA: HSPA 7.2, which challenges EVDO Rev. A by a factor of two or more, and HSPA+ in a 21 Mbps flavor, which can challenge the low-end of Verizon's 4G LTE rollout service—but nationally, not just in the one-third of the country to which Verizon expects to offer LTE by year's end.

However, T-Mobile's path was limited. While it extolled the virtues of HSPA+, which squeezes into 5 MHz channels, it had no real ability to acquire the additional spectrum needed for wider channels to exploit LTE. AT&T and Verizon collectively spent billions to lock down most of the sweet 700 MHz spectrum over which Verizon has already started its LTE deployment, and that AT&T will use starting mid-year for its own efforts.

On the Wi-Fi side, T-Mobile effectively exited the hotspot market in 2008, although most people didn't notice. The firm was able to sign a reciprocal five-year agreement with AT&T for access, which allows T-Mobile customers to use AT&T's network at no additional cost or fuss. That was more important when AT&T's network was largely paid or required hoops to get free service. AT&T's Wi-Fi network now comprises about 21,000 locations, of which about 20,000 are entirely free McDonald's and Starbucks stores. Barnes & Noble is in there somewhere, too. The rest are hotels and a few airports.

The convergence of AT&T and T-Mobile's interests are fairly obvious. Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile don't line up because Verizon already has thorough national coverage with 2G and 3G (provably the best 3G coverage), and uses an incompatible 2G/3G technology in CDMA. While Verizon has a path to GSM in its 4G flavor, it will be using CDMA for 2G and 3G for many years to come.

Sprint Nextel is engaged in pursuing three separate standards. iDEN, used by Nextel, is still in use, despite the firm's best efforts to migrate users to CDMA. Sprint's core 2G/3G network is CDMA. Its 4G plan was to get WiMax deployed early and extensively, which was furthered when it acquired Clearwire with its separate spectrum licenses and operations. That didn't pan out. WiMax needed a much faster deployment, and the money wasn't there to do it. WiMax is an also-ran technology cell mobile; it will have great niche uses and might be the most appropriate technology in some countries. But LTE will rule the Asian, European, and North American markets. Sprint Nextel has also not completed a multi-billion-dollar requirement to migrate public-safety networks to new frequencies in exchange for new spectrum. They are far overdue, and that ugly situation shows no sign of completion to my knowledge.

The real question is whether the Justice Department, FCC, and FTC will allow a merger to take place. There's no benefit to consumers from this merger, reducing competitors from four to three. Sprint Nextel arguably has no good plan for long-term viability, and a deal for Verizon to acquire it might be allowed to avoid bankruptcy, which wouldn't benefit the market (although Sprint could shed massive debt, union contracts, and likely federal obligations which would prove what everyone said when the public-safety spectrum swap was allowed years ago under FCC chair Kevin Martin.)

T-Mobile's plucky upstart nature has gained it over 30m customers, and allowed it to nip at the heels of the big three, likely saving customers billions of dollars a year collectively. The FCC and Congress never intended initially for a few carriers to win. Anti-regulatory and pro-incumbent fervor has led to a situation where there may be only two viable national carriers: AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 6:02 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Cellular, Financial, Future | 2 Comments | No TrackBacks

March 10, 2011

Boeing's Wi-Fi Interference Problem

By Glenn Fleishman

You'll probably read breathless headlines about this today: Boeing found in testing a particular Honeywell system with its 737NG jets that the LCD screen went blank momentarily when systems were subjected to more Wi-Fi signal output than a plane full of passengers. This kind of testing is typical, and it shouldn't be worrisome. Modern avionic equipment is hardened against EMF radiation from other sources, and one might guess the Honeymoon component in question needs additional design checking.

This won't affect planes in the air, and doesn't repudiate the testing previously done aircraft model by aircraft model for certifying Wi-Fi use.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 9:24 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Air Travel | No Comments

Report Indicates Obvious Wi-Fi Conclusions

By Glenn Fleishman

I do not understand this report: I've read Epitiro's report, which does not disclose any funding source for it, and I'm baffled. The report measures Wi-Fi speeds versus wired LAN speeds for broadband connections. Naturally, Wi-Fi speeds are lower. Wi-Fi has far more overhead than Ethernet, suffers from interference, and drops in speed the further you are from a transmitter. That's been true since 802.11b premiered in 1999.

One of the report's authors is paraphrased by the BBC as concluding, "for those who invest in good quality wi-fi equipment and position it sensibly, the effects of the speed degradation would hardly be noticed." So. Why was this report written again?

I suppose the company, which has broadband providers among its customers, wants to be sure that there's awareness that you can have higher rates of speed from very fast broadband connections by plugging in. However, with 802.11n networks and the much faster flavors of broadband available, it's unlikely most people would notice at all.

The report indicates if you're too far from an access point, you might have trouble with Skype. Well, duh. This is general background Wi-Fi knowledge. Measuring it more precisely doesn't advance the body of information about how Wi-Fi works in a home.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 9:20 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Cluelessness, Home | No Comments

March 9, 2011

Aircell Discusses Future Speed Bumps

By Glenn Fleishman

Leading in-flight Internet provider Aircell provides roadmap for future speeds: Aircell currently relies in its commercial aviation deployment on the CDMA standard EVDO Rev. A, nearly identical to the ground cellular tech used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel for their 3G CDMA networks. The flavor Aircell employs works over a narrow set of frequencies that the firm won a license to at auction a few years ago. Aircell can routinely bring a couple of Mbps downstream (from the Internet into the aircraft) per plane, and push hundreds of Kbps back up.

As usage increases, which is the necessity for the capital cost of running such a business, so, too, does the requirement for more bandwidth. Aircell's plan is to migrate to the backwards-compatible EVDO Rev. B, which has substantially greater efficiency for the same spectrum. This will be combined with what Aircell describes as "dual modem" and "directional antenna." Aircell says this will provide four times its current bandwidth. While I don't have guidance from the company, "dual modem" likely refers to using polarization of signals to allow frequency reuse over space. Directional antennas are certainly a refinement on its current air-to-ground antenna approach that reduces the signal loss involved.

In previous conversations with Aircell, the firm discussed its interest in LTE (Long Term Evolution), the fourth-generation standard being employed by Verizon Wireless and AT&T in the US, and many carriers worldwide, to enhance wireless broadband speeds by several factors. EVDO Rev. B is a better short-term choice because of its backwards compatibility. Future EVDO revisions may not be in the cards because of the world's shift from Qualcomm's CDMA roadmap (its in-house 4G standard has been abandoned). But the Rev. B version may have enough efficiency for the available bandwidth that the LTE switch isn't cost effective for the gain.

Aircell also discussed its future satellite backhaul plans. Aircell has spoken in the past about using Ku-band satellites, the sectorized geostationary birds that once powered Connexion, and now provide service to Row 44 and Panasonic—as well as deliver satellite TV to the US among many other uses. Aircell announced plans to use Ka-band satellites, a different frequency range and class, to deliver backhaul to the US in 2013 and worldwide by 2015. Aircell currently cannot offer service on most overwater routes, and would likely also have areas of missing coverage as it expands in the western hemisphere to pass over less-populated regions. In the interim, Aircell will build Ku-band service for airlines flying outside North America.

The reason Aircell discloses this kind of information publicly isn't for the benefits of the industry or passengers (or competitors). It's to make sure the market is absolutely clear on the fact that the only company in the world with a substantial number of planes equipped with in-flight broadband has a clear plan for how it's going to retain its position. Its airline partners have long known about this. This is posturing. And I love it, because it's full of rich, creamy technological goodness.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 2:44 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Air Travel, Future | No Comments

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