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Skype has released a beta test version of its Mac OS X that offers per-minute hotspot access: The 2.8 beta, released today, works with Boingo Wireless's worldwide aggregated hotspot footprint to allow metered access with no setup fee or monthly commitment.
Skype told me that they're charging 19 U.S. cents or 14 euro cents per minute. That's quite steep, except that they're pitching this to people who need a few minutes at a time. Boingo likely hopes to sell a lot of subscriptions to people who find access addictive, and don't want to pay over $10 per hour on a minute-by-minute basis.
Startup VoIP provider DeFi makes big claims, but delivers worldwide calling from a smartphone for $40 or $50 per month: DeFi has a very stripped down business model designed to appeal to a specific, but large class of traveler. They make software that's currently available for Nokia S60 phones (E and N series), and later this year for the iPhone, that acts as a kind of VoIP shunt for calling behavior. When you place a call, the software determines whether you're on a Wi-Fi network, and routes the call out that way; if not, it goes to cell. It also routes inbound calls, and can ring your cell phone's number if you're not on a Wi-Fi network and your inbound DeFi number gets a call.
For $40 or $50 per month (1 or 3 inbound phone numbers, respectively, in any of about 30 countries), you get 3,000 minutes (they call it "unlimited") of calling to and from 75 countries. This includes cell lines in Europe, typically a huge extra for most VoIP plans. DeFi said they signed deals directly with carriers, which they say most VoIP providers have not.
Wi-Fi access works at what they say is "1 million" hotspots, but is really Fon plus several tens of thousands of typical hotel, café, and airport venues. Wi-Fi fees are included for VoIP and data in the monthly subscription. DeFi uses Devicescape behind the scenes to handle no-entry authentication to their Wi-Fi footprint.
The integration is the key point DeFi makes about their product, and may be a stumbling block for an iPhone application. The head of DeFi told me that the company wants their service to require no behavioral changes for customers. Of course, users still have to make sure when they're in areas in which a cell call would be expensive that they don't accidentally wander away from a Wi-Fi hotspot. And Apple doesn't currently allow the kind of integration that would be required for call handling and interception, although DeFi said it's having no problems in its development work.
Boingo adds biggest U.S. ferry system to network: On the heels of acquiring the Opti-Fi set of airport Wi-Fi networks from Parsons and ARINC, Boingo Wireless has purchased Parsons's separate business operating Wi-Fi-based Internet access on the Washington State Ferry (WSF) system. WSF handles 26 million passenger rides per year, which is about half of all U.S. passenger ferry volume. (Just north, British Columbia's ferry system handles slightly more riders.) The announcement is slated for Monday.
Boingo already had a roaming relationship in place with Parsons for ferry use, and thus the purchase doesn't affect users of any of Boingo's monthly subscription plans; subscribers still have access folded in to the company's $8 per month handheld/mobile, $22 per month unlimited North America U.S., and $59 per month global (2,000 minutes) plans.
While neither Parsons nor Boingo released statistics on use, I ride ferry on a regular (not routine) basis, and have found the Wi-Fi relied and widely used. WSF runs two big routes that serve Seattle metro commuters: from Bainbridge Island, which unloads passenger after a half-hour run in downtown Seattle (right near Pioneer Square), and from Kingston, which brings riders also after a half hour into Edmonds where they catch express buses. Those two routes represent half of all WSF passenger trips.
Wi-Fi service is available on the majority of WSF's routes, as well as in terminals and in the car waiting areas. For regular rush hour commuters who drive, they may spend over 2 hours round-trip between waiting and the ferry passage, and far more on bad days.
WSF runs on time, however. This may baffle people used to train, bus, and plane schedules, but it's a thing of wonder to watch the ferry workers cast their lines, tie the boats up, and shepherd hundreds of cars and passengers off and on in a matter of minutes, and then return to the bay or sound for the direction or next stop. I'm not saying the system is a miracle, but it's well-tuned. A notable failure, due to initiative-driven cuts in transportation spending, has led to devastating reductions in service to Port Townsend; its regular boats were found to be irreparable. Replacements haven't yet begun to be built for a variety of reasons.
Port Townsend occupies a significant role in the history of Internet access on the ferry system, however. A small firm, Mobilisa, located in "PT" (the affectionate name town residents use) was able to secure a Department of Transportation no-bid contract to unwire the boats. The line it tested service on was the Port Townsend-Keystone run, and it's where I first encountered the service, when I visited PT to write a New York Times article about commuter Wi-Fi: "Destination Wi-Fi, by Rail, Bus or Boat," 8-July-2004. (Mobilisa has been adept at using earmarks to obtain contracts, the Seattle Times reported in a detailed article on 29-December-2007.)
The service launched for production use in late 2004, and on the Bainbridge route in early 2005. The original contract called for an RFP to be issued, and for Mobilisa to operate the network just briefly--perhaps for a year or so, building out service that another firm would take over. Mobilisa was, I was told, specifically barred from bidding on operating the completed network.
Parsons got the contract in late 2006, and slowly extended service to routes that weren't yet covered. At one point, Parsons seemed to be developing a specialty business in building and operating difficult Internet service networks. That line of business is apparently being shed, however, given that only VIA Rail (operated under the Opti-Fi name) apparently remains in its holdings.
Boingo's original plan was to never operate any physical infrastructure. But the opportunity arose a few years ago for it to buy Concourse Communications, which already managed several major airports' Wi-Fi (and sometimes cellular) networks, and it leapt in with both feet. Boingo now runs vastly more large-scale commuter and business traveler nodes than the next largest operator in the space worldwide.
Slacker joins Apple and Microsoft in releasing new models: It's been a busy week for those who follow the latest developments in music players. Apple's new iPods, while not revolutionary, still up the ante for features and quality; Microsoft's new Zunes, released today, come with fascinating new software options; and the Slacker G2 today. The G2, like the iPod touch and all Zunes, sports Wi-Fi.
Slacker licenses music directly from publishers, and includes a perpetual subscription in the cost of the player. Slacker creates stations that feed out an endless supply of music. The new models are $200 for a 4GB model with the ability to list 25 stations (up to 2,500 songs), or $250 for an 8 GB model with 40 stations (up to 4,000 songs). You can also sync your own music in MP3 or WMA format. For $7.50 per month, you can upgrade and store songs you're listening to, as well as avoid ads.
The G2 is already getting reviews as a much-improved upgrade from the first release. Like the Zune, there's no browser or other Internet features, and that might be a positive.
The G2 is tied into Devicescape's Wi-Fi home and hotspot authentication system, which lets Slacker G2 owners pre-program encryption keys or login information for hotspots that they frequent. Devicescape's software both retrieves and stores login information, allowing the G2 to be used in places that would otherwise require either tedious entry of a WPA passphrase, or be unavailable without a Web browser to handle the login.
Ten thousand is an arbitrary place to put a stick in the sand, but significant nonetheless: The milestone of 10,000 McDonald's wired up--a few hundred have back access only, due to being stores within WalMart centers--is a vindication of Wayport's long-term strategy, dating back to 2004. Wayport switched at that point from a slightly more public-faced, public-access company to one that understood that back-office operations could be just as valuable, if less sexy, than front-facing consumer networks. Dan Lowden, Wayport's long-time marketing and business development chief, said yesterday, "In a lot of these venues, the back office comes first. The Wi-Fi public access for some is a big priority, but for others it's a nice to have, great thing to have, but the priority is the back office."
Although several other quick-service restaurants like McDonald's lack any comprehensive Wi-Fi plan--Burger King, Wendy's, and Subway to name three of the largest--Wayport is locked out of working with direct competitors. This opens the potential for another firm to handle a several-thousand-location network. Wayport has worked with both McDonald's corporate-owned stores (about 2/3rds of stores in the U.S.), as well as reaching out to franchisees, who Lowden noted pay a predetermined flat rate for the service via McDonald's. "It's made them incredibly efficient to be able to offer this to their franchisees at one price, instead of variable pricing," he noted. Wayport acts as the layer between various telecom providers, applications and services, and the stores.
Wayport provides several kinds of back-office services, although credit-card processing was the first thing htey rolled out. They've extended to remote video feeds for security, Redbox DVD rental systems that are found in some McDonald's, and kiosks used for job applications. Lowden said Wayport offers things as straightforward but critical as a dial-up fail-safe when a broadband connection drops.
Wayport also manages AT&T's hotspot network, which puts them in the unwiring seat for the 7,000-odd Starbucks stores that will converted from T-Mobile to AT&T service during 2008. Wayport was once the clear leader in the hotspot builder market, with T-Mobile in the second position. Now, Wayport will be operating through a direct contract or management agreement over 18,000 hotspots in the U.S.; T-Mobile will likely be the second biggest with a couple thousand locations (Borders and FedEx/Kinko's tops among them). The No. 3 player is hard to figure. Panera?
I've been predicting for some time that media on the edge--music, videos, movies, and games stored on servers on the local Wi-Fi network--will be the next big development in venue-oriented Wi-Fi, with Starbucks likely far in the lead. Lowden wouldn't comment on any specific plans in the works, of course, but said generally, "Storing and caching all that content on the edge...hasn't been leveraged in the past, but it will be in the future to create a very unique experience." At Barnes & Noble, Wayport caches some multimedia data that's available to customers in the stores.
The advantage for in-store media storage is that you can leverage the speed of the local network, and add additional access points to distribute network load. The choke point is no longer the Internet connection, but local network speed. I expect--though Wayport, AT&T, and Starbucks haven't said it--that Starbucks infrastructure will be all 802.11n for this reason, likely with both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz support for the best throughput in the higher-frequency band for media transactions. (In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you could only buy movies via 5 GHz.)
Lowden also noted that the proliferation of mobile devices with Wi-Fi built in have led to them reaching out to venues that wouldn't have made sense for them to work with previously, and for unlikely candidates to reach out to them, too. Wayport is now working with a number of healthcare facilities that, while they have their own network infrastructure, wanted to outsource public access Wi-Fi (whether they choose to charge or underwrite it), and certain applications that they're not as experienced with running themselves.
A little history: In 2001 and again in 2004, the heat seemed to be on the public side of Wi-Fi: lots of money to be made, ostensibly, lots of partnerships and venues to be built, and an overcrowded supply of infrastructure builders. The year before, Wayport looked to be an also-ran in the hotspot provider business.
Despite being one of the earliest firms to put Ethernet and then Wi-Fi into hotels, and build out hotspots in airports; and despite their survival of the first hotspot meltdown in 2001 during the dotcom crash and brief venture capital shortage; and despite their early entrance into allowing wholesale pricing for hotspot aggregators; the firm seemed about to be eclipsed by apparently deep-pocketed Cometa (with AT&T, IBM, and Intel in various capital and support roles), Toshiba's mom-and-pop focused turnkey system, and T-Mobile, which had the Starbucks contract. What a difference a year makes.
Cometa, Toshiba, and Wayport contended for the contract to build out back-office and public-access service at McDonald's in the U.S., and Wayport won. Within a few weeks, Toshiba passed its few hundred locations to Cometa, which shut its doors in May 2004. Wayport, meanwhile, had cooked up a strategy for McDonald's that it announced later that month.
Their approach involved a fixed-rate charged for unlimited access by retail network partners for all the locations in their pool. This meant that partners had a fixed cost, instead of a per-session cost, and Wayport could obtain specific revenue even before usage by a partner ramped up. Wayport hasn't discussed the details of this arrangement in depth since, but has partnered with Sony with its Mylo, Nintendo with its DS game player, and ZipIt with its wireless messaging appliance.
The McDonald's deal also apparently gave Wayport a way to extend its work with SBC-later-AT&T; Wayport had earlier in 2004 became the managed-services contractor for SBC to build out The UPS Store/Mailboxes Etc. nationwide. (UPS dropped AT&T as its partner in mid-2007, although that didn't appear to have anything to do with Wayport's role.)
AT&T through Wayport developed its large resold/managed footprint that incorporated resale of Wayport's McDonald's locations with the UPS Store and a few hundred other managed locations, including a handful of airports. The Cingular acquisition of AT&T Wireless put more airports in SBC's hands, too. (SBC was once the 60 percent majority owner of Cingular; when SBC and BellSouth, the other owner, merged that put the newly rebranded AT&T in charge of Cingular which it relabeled as AT&T. Confusing, huh?)
iPass is best known for its corporate connectivity software and remote office hardware, but today enters the individual traveler business: Boingo Wireless can't exist in a vacuum. The service they're offering to individuals and through private-label rebranding is obviously cash-rich enough to attract the interest of iPass, a long-time provider of business connectivity that currently has 3,500 companies as customers, including 417 Fortune 2000 firms.
Their new service, iPassConnect Mobility Service, is an attempt to appeal to regular business travelers and individuals. With plans that start at $30 per month, the offerings are comparable in many ways to Boingo, but have a couple of interesting twists that may appeal to a different set of travelers. Notably, all plans include dial-up service, and two of four plans include unlimited 3G (US only, over EVDO).
No one offers a combination of service that's comparable in scope or price to iPass's new offering. While Boingo Wireless is cheaper ($22 per month for North America, $39 for global) with a similar Wi-Fi footprint, travelers that need 3G for its ubiquity and dial-up for its use as a backstop have no better choice than iPass.
iPass currently claims a network of 95,000 "active" Wi-Fi locations, which is a subtle dig at Boingo, which often lists their total of signed locations, which expands in count before all new locations are integrated into the footprint. iPass uniquely includes current Starbucks locations run by T-Mobile; Boingo and other aggregators will start to include Starbucks as AT&T takes over the network.
The four plans iPass will offer are paired as two North American plans, and two "global" plans. Their North American Wi-Fi offering at $30 per month includes their entire US and Canada Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and dial-up footprint. Piero DePaoli, iPass's director of global product marketing, said that dial-up remains useful for travelers in more remote areas where Wi-Fi isn't an option. The service currently requires Windows XP, 2000, or Vista.
A global Wi-Fi plan that rolls up all 95,000 Wi-Fi locations and worldwide dial-up service will cost $45 per month. For "that business traveler that definitely leaves the country on a semi regular basis, this is going to be a service that is going to be very attractive," said DePaoli.
Adding cell service to each plan takes the service up to a total of $70 per month for North American Wi-Fi plus US 3G, and $85 per month for global Wi-Fi plus US 3G. At a $40-per-month incremental cost, this is a much better 3G deal than any of the cell operators.
iPass requires the purchase of a $125 PC Card EVDO modem (includes shipping and handling), and a 1-year commitment with a $100 early cancellation penalty. The company will consider adding other form factors, like ExpressCard, as demand warrants.
For enterprise users, iPass aggregates dial-up, Ethernet (mostly US hotel), Wi-Fi hotspot, and 3G service into a single login that's integrated with corporate networks to preserve one user, one password, end-point security (VPN, anti-virus, firewall), consistent billing, and cross-corporate averaging of services.
For now, businesses with multiple employees that are below the threshold of needing iPass's full-bore plan (which is available through value-added resellers, too) will need to sign up for individual accounts under this new individual service.
This new offering is part of what seems to be a trend in both resale and aggreation of hotspots. Starbucks chose AT&T as its new Wi-Fi operator in part for the ways in which AT&T would promote usage, including offering free service to a large swath of existing AT&T customers. Likewise, iPass's entry shows that there's a market for flat-rate services for predictable expectations that spans beyond plain Wi-Fi. 3G never looked this cheap before.
Whisher has relaunched itself with both free and metered fee options for connecting: Whisher is a network. No, it's a buddy list. No, it's a hotspot aggregator. Okay, it's all three in one, now. The company launched as a way to pull together buddies and free locations into a single connection package for Mac and Windows that would prevent people from having to remember or distribute passwords to join. The first software release included a standalone client that had instant messaging and file transfer built in.
Whisher's new release, a few weeks old, strips down the client, embedding it into the Wireless Networks manager in Windows and into the AirPort menu under Mac OS X. Under Windows, account details are embedded into the Wireless Network window; in Mac OS X, Whisher uses a lightweight System Preferences pane to handle account information. The IM and file transfer features are missing, but company head Ferran Moreno said the options may return in the future when people are more accustomed to the basic functionality of their client.
The biggest change beyond form factor, however, is the addition of WiFi Out, a name that sounds patterned after Skype's SkypeOut. WiFi Out is a per-minute roaming service that uses the WeRoam aggregation footprint as well as separate agreements with major European hotspot providers. They're claiming about 60,000 hotspots across 400 networks.
WiFi Out works differently from most of the other aggregators out there today, which have mostly switched to flat monthly pricing for unlimited access. That includes Boingo Wireless, iPass, and Trustive, among others.
Whisher, instead, requires a minimum prepaid deposit of either $10 or €10 via credit card or PayPal. Metered service runs about US 10 cents per minute, although it varies widely among providers; a given hotspot's price is shown in the network selection interface.
In my current experience, there is no provider offering a combination of prepaid metered rates and broad access. There might be a niche for this for the occasional traveler. Boingo charges $39 or €29 per month for global, which would translate in Whisher's pricing system to about 6 1/2 hours of service at 10 cents a minute. That's a reasonable benchmark for figuring out whether an aggregator with unlimited access makes more sense to you (since Boingo's footprint encompasses all of Whisher's) than a pay-as-you-go service.
The company continues to list tens of thousands of free locations identified by their users, and free access shared by their users from their own locations.
In a deal that's been years in coming, Boingo's aggregated hotspot service now includes 9,000 McDonald's stores: Coming on the heels of Starbucks's switch from T-Mobile to AT&T, this is a very good week indeed for Boingo Wireless--they'll be adding the two biggest chain networks in the U.S., both of which dwarf the next largest network.
Boingo sells aggregated access to roughly 100,000 hotspots worldwide: unlimited U.S. access is $22 per month, while worldwide is $39. A mobile device service is $8 per month worldwide.
Christian Gunning, Boingo's marketing director, noted that McDonald's may have a reputation for bringing in local people and consumers, but, "The McDonald's [addition] also helps you with a subset of the business traveler group, the windshield warriors, the regional sales guys, who go from town to town to town."
McDonald's locations are operated by Wayport under an arrangement that they first secured in 2004 where resellers of the service pay a flat rate per location in the network rather than a per-session fee, which is otherwise common in the industry to this day. (Read "Wayport's Wi-Fi World Switches from Per-Connection to Per-Venue Fees," 2004-05-24, for historical background.)
AT&T's new contract with Starbucks also puts the coffee giant's 7,000 stores into Boingo's roaming arena as the telecom firm takes over management during 2008. Starbucks and AT&T said a schedule hadn't yet been set for the first market to switch to AT&T, nor which markets would switch first; just that it would start in second quarter 2008.
(Industry trivia contest: By the end of 2008, AT&T will have the largest network in the U.S., with over 17,000 hotspots directly under contract; who is #2? Panera has over 1,000 locations with free access, and I'm not sure any hotspot network is larger than that.)
Boingo also announced today that it had joined the Wireless Broadband Alliance, a several-year-old international group that facilitates roaming agreements among its members, T-Mobile's U.S. operations being the only American component. Boingo operates 28 airports in the U.S. and UK, and that gives them some leverage.
Big news, and I had not an inkling of it, lest you think your loyal correspondent always has the inside track: Starbucks is shredding its deal in place since 2001, originally with MobileStar then T-Mobile, to switch to AT&T as their Wi-Fi provider. That moves 7,000 locations from T-Mobile's ledgers of nearly 9,000 to AT&T's. It turns AT&T from "McDonald's plus," with a relatively small footprint of other locations, to a 17,000-location giant. It also means that 12 million DSL customers and fiber (U-Verse) subscribers and 5 million remote-access business customers now get free access to Starbucks.
AT&T says in their press release that all Starbucks Card holders, which is simply their value-storing swipe card system, will get two hours of free Wi-Fi a day. No purchase is needed: you just need an active card, I confirmed with the company. Walk in, buy a $5 value card, activate it, and you're on for two hours a day from then forward. You can also use multiple devices with a single account, within reason, Starbucks told me. AT&T has also lowered the price for usage from T-Mobile's somewhat egregious $6 per hour or $10 per day to $4 for a two-hour session. The monthly price, like the rest of AT&T's network, is $20 per month for outsiders, which also includes all 70,000 domestic and international locations in their worldwide roaming network.
And--yes, there's an and--all Starbucks employees, 100,000 "partners" (read: wage slaves and management) get free access at all Starbucks locations. Which you have to admit is a nice perq.
AT&T is also part of Boingo's roaming network, which means that their customers suddenly get 7,000 highly desirable domestic roaming locations at no additional cost. (iPass has long had a T-Mobile roaming relationship.) The same is true for other AT&T roaming partners, an AT&T spokesperson confirmed.
T-Mobile HotSpot subscribers will still be able to access Starbucks locations. Starbucks posted a separate press release stating that T-Mobile will be a roaming partner onto the AT&T network through a side deal; no additional cost is involved. There's some leverage here, because T-Mobile does have about 2,000 other locations, including some premium airports like San Francisco. Existing roaming/aggregation deals among Boingo, AT&T, and T-Mobile were partly predicated on the airport market, where millions of subscribers to each network pass through each year.
I should have seen this coming, because it was extremely odd when Apple partnered with Starbucks for the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store service, when their exclusive iPhone partner is AT&T and Starbucks had the T-Mobile deal. This also may pave the way for in-store iTunes Store media servers, which would--as I have written too much about in the last few years--allow someone to use the edge network, the WLAN not the Internet, to pull down a movie in a few minutes instead of an hour or two on a home network.
Wayport just sent out their press notification; the Austin, Texas, firm has been providing managed services for AT&T for the telecom's own network for a few years, but also operates through its own relationship the 8,000+ McDonald's locations. AT&T has been the backhaul provider, as I understand it, for most of the McDonald's deal. It's a bit intertwined. Wayport's hotspot growth has been limited in recent years as the market for where Wi-Fi could go became saturated; this move is exceptionally good for the privately held firm.
The deal goes into place starting market-by-market in the second quarter of 2008, and will be completed this year.
Devicescape released version 2 of their connection software designed for mobile devices today, making the initial setup even more frictionless: Devicescape Connect allows mobile devices to log into hotspot and home networks without the user entering a single password or using a micro-browser to navigate through usage agreements. The latest revision allows a mobile device to sign up for Devicescape's service without first setting up an account on Devicescape's servers. This dramatically reduces the overhead for someone wanting to connect immediately to Wi-Fi networks.
Company head Dave Fraser said in an interview yesterday, "Without registering or going to our Web site or anything, as soon as you install the client, or power on a device with the client in it, you get immediate access to any hotspot we can get you into." Fraser noted that's any of the tens of thousands of free hotspots that are part of their system now, including Google in Mountain View or McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. Fraser said, "There's lots and lots of them in our database now. We'll automate those. You don't have to plan in advance, and register, and populate My Wi-Fi," the part of a My Devicescape account in which you list networks you're a member of.
Devicescape currently has software available for Mac OS X and Windows, as well as certain Nokia phones and tablets, Windows Mobile, and jailbroken iPhones and iPod touches (iPods touch?). Prior to its current incarnation, the company focused exclusively on providing Wi-Fi and networking software for mobile devices, and that's still a big chunk of their business; this means we can expect to see a host of devices with Devicescape software built in, ready to go. The company had no announcements about built-in device support today, however.
I hope manufacturers will be delighted with this new release, because it means that someone who buys a piece of Wi-Fi-equipped hardware can immediately use it on an open or free network, or on a hotspot network for which they are a member, such as T-Mobile HotSpot or AT&T's Wi-Fi network. CEO Fraser said, "A manufacturer can ship the device, and if you switch it on for the first time in Starbucks, it'll say, 'hey, do you have a user name and password on this device?'" (Devicescape said they set a goal to be set up to work with 100 hotspot networks by the end of 2007; instead, they hit 1,000.)
That's a far cry from my usual experience with handheld devices that have Wi-Fi, where I'm tediously entering data in a micro-browser, if it's even usable, or unable to get past an Accept button that I can't see because the device lacks any browser at all. Even the iPhone's superior Mobile Safari browser doesn't store passwords or form field entries, which means re-entering the same data every time, and it doesn't work consistently on free networks that require a button or box to be checked to accept terms. (It's getting better; it was far worse when the iPhone was first released, but Apple and hotspot operators are clearly improving compatibility with one another's offerings.)
It's a great demo in, say, a camera store or a phone store, where with a store network all ready to go, a salesperson could help the buyer unpack their new gadget, fire it up, show them how to enable Devicescape, and then get on the Internet. That's a pretty powerful sales tool.
The 2.0 software has a feature that I expect will provoke criticism: By default, a device will automatically look for all unsecured networks in its vicinity if no preferred hotspot is found, and then connect to each open network and try to reach the Internet. In some states and countries, I believe this could constitute unauthorized use of computer networks; passively scanning doesn't typically ring any legal bells. In Germany and Singapore, I believe the law is quite clear: without advance permission, any access is infringing. I think it's a bad idea for this feature to be turned on by default for that reason regardless of its positive aspects.
Fraser noted, "You can switch it off, if you don't like it, because it can be controversial." They expect to leave this feature on only for a certain period of time as they gather more information about the open networks out in the wild, and work out a way to allow folks with intentionally open networks to register with them or signal their openness. In the next release, Fraser said, "You'll have the option of saying connect me only to intentionally open unsecured networks."
Fraser said that there are benefits to register on the Web site after initially using a device. If you have multiple Wi-Fi devices, including computers that use their connection software, you can consolidate it all into a single account. The Web site is necessary for registering personal networks that use encryption keys, and for using their buddy network to allow other people access to your networks or gain access to theirs without sharing encryption keys.
But the frictionless process is designed to let people who otherwise won't be paying for Wi-Fi to gain immediate access to free locations, or to use bundled services that their operator--like AT&T--might offer. Fraser said, "We wanted something that was going to work for the majority of people out there for which Wi-Fi is really a free or bundled thing."
The software isn't yet set up to serve ads to users in exchange for access, something that's proving efficacious in some networks, and has gained some traction through a recent deal between JiWire and Boingo Wireless that gives iPhone and iPod touch users free access in many airports in exchange for viewing ads. (Disclosure: I own a small number of shares in privately held JiWire.)
Devicescape also announced a change in their developer licensing terms to make their software easier for potential partners and free software developers to use. The new license isn't open source, but they provide the source code at no cost, and deployment for non-commercial projects carries no fee.
Boingo picks up seven airport Wi-Fi networks: Boingo bought Concourse Communications last year to conserve revenue, improve their bargaining power with international hotspot network operators, and expand their retail brand. They've rolled out a few more airports in the interim, but this Sprint deal lets them pick up seven with one blow. (I wrote a lengthy article on the state of Boingo on 17 Oct 2007.)
The deal allows Sprint Wi-Fi subscribers to retain inclusive access to these airports and gain the 16 that Boingo operates, which includes the big three around New York City (JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia) and Chicago's two airports.
This acquisition puts Boingo in a position where they will surely be able to work with every airline that offers in-flight Internet access, as those airlines will want to provide some form of seamless access from airport to airport, too.
Boingo charges $22 per month for unlimited access to U.S. hotspots and $39 per month for unlimited access to its worldwide network. A single session costs $8.
The airports are Houston William P Hobby (HOU), Houston George Bush Intercontinental (IAH), Memphis International (MEM), Milwaukee General Mitchell International (MKE), Oakland International (OAK), Louisville International-Standifer Field (SDF), and Salt Lake City International (SLC). These are mostly solid second-tier airports, with the exception of Houston George Bush (No. 4 in the U.S. in 2006 by passenger traffic) and Salt Lake City (No. 23).
Boingo announced that their compact Boingo Mobile client is now available for Nokia phones, tablets: The software, available now for E60 phones and handhelds like the N95 and in November for the N800 tablet, connects the devices to Boingo's worldwide network of tens of thousands of hotspots for $7.95 per month. The price includes Wi-Fi voice calls and Wi-Fi data used on these hotspots. As with the Devicescape deal announced last week, this doesn't put the software on the phones, but makes it simple for the Boingo-developed software to be found and installed on supported Nokia devices. (Boingo's laptop-enabled network has 100,000 hotspot; the mobile-enabled locations and pricing model requires more work and negotiation with operators as Boingo continues to build the mobile footprint.)
Christian Gunning, Boingo's head of marketing, said that while Nokia's S60 and N Series phones weren't well known in the U.S., that they were "widely available and widely successful" elsewhere. Subscribers typically pay the full cost for phones in Europe, and users aren't limited as to what they install on them. That means that VoIP over Wi-Fi isn't an unusual application, and Boingo can enable that by providing the network at a predictable monthly cost. The deal also allows Nokia's multimedia phones and tablets to access streaming and downloadable media over Wi-Fi at a much lower cost than with comparable laptop-oriented Wi-Fi deals, including Boingo's own U.S. and international unlimited plans ($22 and $39, respectively).
While Boingo put part of its software suite into open source licensing to allow their service to be ported to platforms that they wouldn't themselves have spent the time to develop under, the Nokia deal was in cooperation with the Finnish handset giant. In contrast, Belkin developed their Boingo add-on for the Skype phone they released last year on their own, and contracted with Boingo to allow retail Boingo customers to gain access to the aggregated network. (Manufacturers can choose to contract for users and keep part of the fees, but that requires minimum monthly fees paid to Boingo.)
I took the opportunity to talk to Gunning about the company's current strategy. Founded in 2001, they've been pursuing their aggregated network approach for nearly six years; I first wrote about them in Dec. 2001.
Gunning said that to ensure quality on their increasingly large and non-U.S. aggregated network, they contracted with a third party, Lionbridge to handle not just localization--customizing their applications and Web sites for other languages and countries--but also worldwide testing. "We contract with them literally to jump on planes and go from country to country to country with laptops and handheld devices and do quality testing on major networks around the world," Gunning said.
Boingo tried to handle this in house and on an ad hoc basis, but they couldn't achieve the level of quality from the platform partners, Gunning said. As I have explained to the many people over the years who have asked me how Boingo made money selling subscriptions at retail, Boingo is the private-label backend or hotspot component for products sold by Fiberlink, Verizon Business, and most recently, Alltel.
Through this testing, Gunning said that Boingo was able to help its hotspot partners to achieve better results, but also that they were able to remove a handful of locations from their directories that they couldn't guarantee consistent performance on. "We can monitor if there's a specific SSID or a specific venue ID that's consistently failing," said Gunning.
Because Boingo has been in a position to work with networks worldwide to improve their consistency, I asked Gunning where 802.1X--a standard network authentication method widely supported for enterprises--stood in terms of hotspots. "802.1X in hotspots would be a phenomenal boom for the end user in terms of security and safety," he said, but besides a handful of networks like KT in South Korea (which requires it), and T-Mobile (not a Boingo network partner outside its airports), and iBahn, there's not much uptake.
What Gunning did note, however, is that the Wireless Internet Service Provider (wISPr) standard developed at the Wi-Fi Alliance (and seemingly not available on their site) has proved an effective set of guidelines for hotspot operators in providing at least a basic level of compatibility. Boingo had to build dozens of authentication scripts in their early days, but now can use one of about five scripts that work with popular interpretations of the wISPr guidelines. (It's not a certified, tested standard, but a set of basic recommendations.)
On the financial front, Boingo remains privately held and close lipped. Gunning noted that Deloitte & Touche had recently given noted that Boingo was the No. 2 company in the Los Angeles area for growth over a five-year period. This gives us a glimpse into their revenue, as firms must have had over $50,000 in yearly revenue in 2002, and over $5m in annual revenue in 2006. The accounting firm privately checks out a firm's books to determine revenues and other factors.
Boingo was reported as having a 13,398-percent growth over that period, which means that assuming at least $50,000 in 2002, they have nearly $7m in revenue by 2007. It's more likely that they had over $50,000 revenue in 2002, and thus are probably above the $20m range now, including Concourse Communications revenue. That would represent something like a few tens of thousands of regular subscriptions and some hundreds of thousands of one-off purchases at airports. While Gunning wouldn't confirm a precise amount, he stated that it is well above that mark. Gunning also said that "we are cash flow positive; we have a sustainable business."
I noted Concourse just a moment ago, a 2006 acquisition by Boingo of an airport Wi-Fi provider and cellular network equipment operator. Concourse has agreements for service for a large percentage of the major airports in the U.S., including Detroit, Minneapolis, O'Hare, and Midway in the midwest, Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, and Nasvhille in the south, and JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia in the northeast. (On the cellular side, cellular operators contract with a central network builder - sometimes a cell operator, sometimes a third party like Concourse - which in turn pays fees to the airport authority.)
Gunning said that the acquisition was a way for Boingo to expand its retail identity while also gaining chits that would allow it to expand its networks. He noted that some unique network deals that the company assembled required reciprocal roaming: Boingo could include these networks in their aggregated footprint by also extending access to those operators' subscribers when they roamed to Concourse-managed airports. This has given Boingo some exclusivity over competing hotspot network components offered by firms like iPass.
Related to that, I asked Gunning if the evil twin problem at O'Hare and elsewhere was true or overblown. In this scenario, travelers see a network name called "Free Wi-Fi" or a variant when they check on available Wi-Fi. Some security researchers have checked and seen that these are ad hoc networks. Gunning confirmed that there is a virus or viruses in the wild that are tailored to advertise an ad hoc network, and then transmit various payloads, such as spam zombie software or other keyloggers, to any vulnerable computer that connects. It also "turns your machine into a free Wi-Fi hotspot broadcasting ad hoc machine to spread the virus," further propagating itself.
It's been interesting to follow the model that Boingo founder (and EarthLink founder) Sky Dayton promulgated back in 2001, that the goal was to fill pipes, not to build networks. Dayton saw a distinct difference between the two tasks, an unpopular view at the time as companies were started that tried to pursue retail brands for their particular small number of hotspots. While T-Mobile and a few other companies do still have a strong retail Wi-Fi association, frequent business travelers have tended to move towards a subscription model with whatever the best and most well traveled set of hotspots they have can cover, whether AT&T WiFi, T-Mobile, Boingo, iPass, or others.
Gunning echoed Dayton's words when he spoke about how the company views itself: "We're all about being a big, fat dumb pipe to do whatever you want."
Devicescape's Connect software for iPhone allows frictionless hotspot hookups: The single most annoying thing about an iPhone--after the lack of a To Do application--is how much effort it takes to connect to a hotspot that requires an account or payment. Devicescape's already solved that program for laptops, in an approach similar to Boingo's, but their real thrust is handheld devices and gadgets. Follow the link for my full write-up at TidBITS, a Macintosh site for which I am a contributing editor.
Distributed via a soft release today with Nullriver, makers of the iPhone installation hack called AppTapp, Devicescape's Connect makes it simple to connect to any network for which you've entered the credentials at their account management site. I've been testing the software for over a week. It's slick. It has two buttons: Login; Logout. Couldn't be more straightforward.
Devicescape attempts to remove the friction from using public and personal Wi-Fi networks, whether free or for-fee or under your own control, by externalizing authentication: you punch all the relevant details into their site, freeing you from having to perform device-by-device, network-by-network authentication, and relieving you of updating one or more devices when you change your own network passwords.
For an iPhone, it's rather ideal to gain access to networks that you have permission to use without any additional effort. Apple should have provided something like this; Devicescape beat them to the punch.
The software and service are free. Devicescape is considering value-added services to produce revenue, including simple options to buy access on networks they partner with using credit card details you store in your Devicescape account.
Thirteen airports are covered in a free Wi-Fi for iPhones promotion: Boingo Wireless is reaching out to the hundreds of thousands of we early adopters with iPhones by offering free access in 13 airports. They purchased Concourse Communications last year, the leading airport Wi-Fi vendor. Boingo charges $8 for a day session or $22 for unlimited US and $39 for unlimited worldwide access. No special coupon codes are needed: Just select the "concourse" network from the list of Wi-Fi networks and connect.
Because the iPhone doesn't yet support third-party applications, using Boingo requires the entry of your user name and password on a login page each time you want to connect. This promotion should let iPhone owners test Boingo's network with less friction; ultimately, Apple will allow outside software, and a Boingo connection manager would be the first thing I'd want on mine.
The airports are Baltimore/Washington, Detroit, JFK, Kalamazoo/Battle Creek, LaGuardia, Lambert-St. Louis, Midway (Chicago), Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nashville, Newark, O'Hare, Toronto, and Will Rogers (Oklahoma City).
(An enterprising soul might recognize that the iPhone is recognized by an HTTP referrer string sent by its Safari browser.)
iPass joins the growing array of aggregators of hotspot access in providing flat-rate service: In a briefing prior to today's announcement focused on enterprise device management, iPass product manager director Piero DePaoli said the company has been offering a flat-rate price for unlimited hotspot use across their network since 2006. iPass decided the time was right to discuss the pricing with Wi-Fi Networking News in context of the changes in the industry, and their bundling of IT tools to help tech managers keep mobile workers' laptops safely up to date.
The firm charges roughly $50 per month per network user that uses an iPass location at any time during a month. Users that stay off iPass hotspots but uses the iPass Connect client during that month to connect to non-iPass locations costs about $2 to $4 per month. DePaoli said that the unlimited use fee organizations pay varies upward or downward from $50 per network user based on the minimum number of users a client contracts for, and the areas of the world that a company has the most usage in. The flat rate "encourages [companies] and their users to use the service on a regular basis and be productive," DePaoli said.
iPass joins--or, rather, quietly predates--Boingo Wireless and Trustive in offering unlimited hotspot access at a single rate across their entire aggregated networks (Boingo coverage, Trustive coverage). iPass confirmed via email today that they count 80,000 locations in their network. Boingo claims 100,000 under contract with 60,000 live and accessible (the rest coming in a matter of weeks and months), reselling unlimited service for $39/€29 per month. Trustive just opened its network of about 30,000 European locations for €33 per month.
While I am not privy to the detailed terms of the deals arranged between aggregators and venues, I've been told on many occasions that aggregators typically pay a per-session fee to a venue. At one point that ranged from 50 cents to $1; I have no idea what price it is today. I suspect that there are an increasing number of deals in which an aggregator pays a guaranteed monthly minimum to a venue, which would then behoove the aggregator to accumulate more flat-rate customers who use that venue or set of venues.
All of which means that, on average, aggregators have customers who use about 10 to 15 sessions a month. Some power users who travel to countries in which aggregators pay higher than normal fees or frequent venues with better deals may far exceed their monthly payment in what the aggregators settle to hotspot operators and hoteliers; others may use just a few sessions a month, still coming out ahead on $7 to $15 daily fees.
iPass mostly does business with larger firms (386 of Forbes's Global 2000) that buy access for a subset or all of their employees, with iPass integrating the directory services already running at the company with their software allowing single login services for company employees, and a single bill with full itemization that hits corporate accounting in electronic form. iPass does work with resellers that sell to individuals as well.
iPass, like EarthLink, is the middle of the massive shift from dial-up to Wi-Fi and broadband among their user base. In their most recent quarterly reporting, they show a massive drop in revenue from their bread-and-butter, metered roaming dial-up, from $30.6m in Q1 2006 to $20.3m in Q1 2007. That would leave most companies weeping, and shifting management. However, in the same period, they increased broadband revenue (including Wi-Fi and other services) from $5.7m to $15.4m, a staggering rise. With an increase in software and service revenue, the firm managed to slightly increase overall revenue, while keeping losses at a dull roar.
Today's announcement, by the way, was that iPass's Mobility Management package is included in the cost of those monthly service fees. DePaoli explained that the management software lets IT personnel "use our system to push out operating system patches, homegrown software, configurations, and everything else." This keeps staff in the field up to date and in sync, reducing downtime or manual upgrade operations.
Trustive adds unlimited Wi-Fi access for €33/month for 30,000 hotspots: The firm is also offering a five-account unlimited rate for €150 for businesses. The firm aggregates hotspots across Europe, with 23,000 available now and 7,000 being added in the next two months. Boingo's new worldwide plan costs US$39 or €29, but includes access across 60,000 hotspots today (and 100,000 in the near future), including Asia, America, and the rest of the world.
Given that both networks include major European providers such as The Cloud, Surf and Sip, and BT OpenZone, it's hard to see what differentiates Trustive's more expensive offering from Boingo's more extensive one.
Boingo requires a software client (Windows only at the moment) for access to every location, although the majority of partners also allow a manual login at a partners window. Trustive requires a client and doesn't note whether alternatives for login are available, although it's likely that similar partner login gateway pages are available. Update: A Trustive spokesperson said that a gateway login is available without a software client for all locations in their network. I'm not sure why both firms don't mention this clearly on their Web sites, as that would attract non-Windows users, including iPhone customers.
I figured it out: it's an internal business unit problem at the phone giant: There must no integration between AT&T's wireline businesses, which sell DSL, phone lines, and Wi-Fi, and the former Cingular as regards Wi-Fi. That would explain the lack of a Wi-Fi data plan alongside the cell data offering for the iPhone.
Cingular always had (and still offers) a crummy Wi-Fi plan compared to two-buck AT&T WiFi (formerly SBC FreedomLink). Prices were much higher and locations fewer. Cingular was 60 percent owned by SBC-cum-AT&T for the longest time, and the AT&T-SBC merger is still in the recent past; their "silos" may still reflect this.
I can't think that AT&T executives simply didn't think about this, but it's possible the integration between the former majority subsidiary wireless carrier and the larger business meant they didn't think about how this could work together. (AT&T's Wi-Fi page notes that it's run by AT&T Internet Services (ATTIS), by the way.)
What it means if you buy an iPhone and are an AT&T DSL customer, is that you should sign up for the $1.99 per month plan so you can use the 10,000 locations in their Wi-Fi network.
Boingo would be an option, too, of course, now offering unlimited access to tens of thousands of US locations for $22 per month and 60,000 locations (soon 100,000 worldwide for $39 per month. While Boingo requires a software package to use its locations, there's almost always an alternate method of entry--more tedious, of course, but a Boingo spokesperson said most hotspot partners let a user choose Boingo and enter their user name and password.
And one of those partners that does that? AT&T, naturally.
Boingo will charge $39/€29 per month for unlimited use at all its locations worldwide: Boingo has long had to explain its North America versus the world policy for its $22 per month offering. That option--which will be retained for those who spend their time domestically--includes all usage within the US and Canada, but quite a bit of the worldwide service was metered.
The new plan extends Boingo Unlimited worldwide as Boingo Global. Both month-by-month offerings are renewed automatically until canceled--without penalty. Sign ups can happen on Boingo's site or at two partners: Hub Télécom in France and Oslo Lufthavn Tele & Data AS (OLTD) in Norway, two key airport network operators. Boingo operates service under the Concourse name in several major U.S. airports.
The point of airport-based signups is that you can download the client and signup immediately, gaining access with your first session at the monthly unlimited price. Not everyone plans ahead, or is aware of this kind of service option.
Boingo has also replaced its more "heavy weight" software package with GoBoingo, a simpler utility that has a smaller download footprint. The software handles network identification and log in. It's available initially for Windows only. Partnerships in Germany, Italy, and the UK are coming later this year.
This is going to gut completely the high charge for Wi-Fi in Europe. It's not going to be sustainable. Why would you pay €20 or even £20 a day for hotel Internet access when Boingo will offer you a month's unlimited use for about the same? Why would you pay £6 an hour in the UK or the ludicrous Scandinavian prices? The Cloud told the International Herald Tribune that they were moving towards a flat-rate plan as well for their 8,500 locations (7,000 in the UK).
I have written for years that for-fee Wi-Fi hotspots would ultimately cost about $20 per month or be free. The former has been true for a while in the US with various plans running $20 to $50 per month for unlimited access on networks of 8,000 to 30,000 locations in the U.S.
The free part was when you get to a point where Wi-Fi is just a service that's thrown in for customer loyalty, like AT&T's $2 per month inclusion of 15,000 locations for its DSL customers--people they're already billing, and want to give a value add that reduces the $100s spent for customer churn and acquisition.
The free part also comes when the cost is low enough that your employer just picks up the tab because it's worth giving you constant access instead of nickeling-and-diming, or it actually substantially reduces their cost of your roaming.
I asked a Boingo spokesperson whether this plan involves changes in contracts with their customers, as the voice calling plan Boingo Mobile did. (That plan offers worldwide unlimited VoIP over Wi-Fi for $8 per month, but in a select and growing number of locations.) He said it did not; that Boingo has monitored usage very closely, and they can continue to pay existing session and other rates to their aggregated partners, while using a single fee to their customers.
Boingo now claims 100,000 contracted hotspots worldwide of which they said over 60,000 are currently integrated in the network, and the remainder are due to be so within roughly 90 days.
Boingo will allow its mobile and laptop subscribers to roam onto the Fon network: This is part of the mobile play. Boingo Mobile offers voice service for $8 per month worldwide, and that will now include the 130,000 locations Fon currently claims at no additional charge. This sort of roaming arrangement validates Fon's model in a way that nothing to date has seen, because it involves no additional per-session cost. Laptop users can also roam, but I see less potential there as when I survey Fon locations, they tend to be in places where, to gain access, you're unlikely to use a laptop. (Fon locations that are ideal for laptops tend to be the same kinds of locations that may already be part of Boingo's network, like cafes and retail establishments.)
A spokesperson for Fon confirmed that "Bills," Foneros who receive payment when their Fon access points are used, will get 50 percent of the revenue Fon receives from Boingo. What that revenue is, however, hasn't been revealed. In the past, Boingo paid 50 cents to a dollar per session to its hotspot partners. That can add up with a $22 per month unlimited use subscription, and I suspect Boingo pays much less per session now. Their Boingo Mobile deal with hotspot operators required new contracts, and works worldwide with a single rate--and thus likely to have substantially lower rates of session payment.
A third round of private financing brings in $65m: The money was raised to finance the acquisition of cell/Wi-Fi airport operator Concourse Communications, which runs services for airport authorities in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit, Chicago (both), New York (all three metro airports), and elsewhere.
They'll use the excess cash to "provide working capital to strengthen the company's balance sheet and provide funds for future growth." Which, translated, means, "We have money but not enough to move ahead at the speed we want to, and we want to buy more companies."
Boingo has raised nearly $100m in three rounds, the last of which was in 2003. The firm says they expect they will not raise additional private funds.
I have said many times that those that believe that Boingo's entire business is customer-facing resale of aggregated hotspot access might consider that the firm has an awful lot of staying power and an awful lot of staff to perform that one function. Remember that they are a software developer, just for instance.