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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.
Starbucks U.S. operations have launched its Gold card, a paid membership with Wi-Fi included: The Starbucks Gold card was in testing for some time in Seattle--the outlet near my office has had a Gold logo in the window for months, I believe--but it's now unleashed for general consumption. The card costs $25 per year, and includes two hours of continuous Wi-Fi access each day; the firm's stored value card offers Wi-Fi for 30 days following a purchase or adding value.
Gold has a bunch of frequent sipper benefits: a free drink when you purchase the membership, followed by 10 percent discounts on most stuff you buy (drinks, food, merchandise, hard goods), a free beverage on your birthday each year, and other discounts and deals that will be announced during the year.
I suppose the logic is that for someone who spends over $175 per year at Starbucks would likely make up the difference (10% of $175 plus a couple free drinks should top $25). It's possible I spend that much, even though I only have casual interest in their shops, because of frequenting them in strange towns, enjoying their sandwiches (not their roasts), and airport purchases.
Update: Contrary to the plain text with no footnote on the Gold sign-up site--"Free Wi-Fi access for up to 2 hours each day in participating Starbucks stores"--Starbucks contacted me to clarify that Gold card holders must also make a purchase or add value every 30 days to have continuous access to the Wi-Fi offer.
Wayport acquisition by AT&T makes me go whoompf: Yesterday's announcement that AT&T would purchase hotspot operator Wayport for $275m in cash gave me pause for reflection. I started covering the Wi-Fi field in late 2000, spurred by testing Apple's AirPort system, which, despite being on the market for a year, I was quite dubious about. It worked well, and it led me to find that Wi-Fi was being deployed as an amenity. I hopped on the story, and wrote a very early feature for The New York Times about public-space Wi-Fi in airports, cafes, and elsewhere. (See The Web, Without Wires, Wherever, 22-Feb-2001.)
Of the firms mentioned in the article, several disappeared within a year. And later startups like Cometa had big runs up and then giant flameouts. (I run down the failures as well as some other details of the Wayport deal at Ars Technica.)
Wayport may have survived and thrived due to two moves. First, the operator was an early partner with Boingo, renegotiating its contracts with venues to allow the pricing model of wholesale aggregation resale to work. On a panel at 802.11 Planet after Boingo launched, if I recall correctly, Wi-Fi veteran Phil Belanger (then at Wayport) explained that contracts with its venues needed to be renegotiated, but it was worth it to increase volume of use.
Wayport was right. Firms that resisted reasonable resale pricing or availability seem to have all gone by the wayside. The latest of these was T-Mobile, which had very restrictive roaming/resale agreements, and was replaced at Starbucks by AT&T, which has expansive agreements.
The other element was Wayport grabbing the McDonald's contract through the use of a still-innovative pricing model. Instead of reselling sessions at McDonald's to aggregators or others, Wayport offered only a flat rate based on the piece of the McDonald's network that a reseller sliced. It had hoped to get cable systems interested as a competitive tool against 2.5G networks and other telecom advantages. It didn't happen.
But the Wi-Fi World model, as it called the program at launch, proved the right approach for consumer electronics and gaming firms, like Nintendo for its Wi-Fi-enabled DS system, ZipIt Wireless for its instant-messaging handheld for teens, and Eye-Fi for the geotagging Explore model of its Wi-Fi memory card.
Wayport also was able to snag AT&T as a resale partner early on; AT&T was providing backhaul to many stores, and wound up buying access to resell to some of its customers. That later expanded into Wayport becoming AT&T's managed services provider, and AT&T slowly but dramatically expanding cheap ($1.99 per month) and then free access to its base Wi-Fi network to a large portion of its wireline, fiber, business, and smartphone customers.
I'd say Wi-Fi World paid off as an approach.
Some might ask where this puts Boingo in relation to AT&T. Since Boingo is an aggregator, the advantage of which is to take many disparate networks and repackage them for resale at a predictable and reasonable price, why would you need Boingo when you can get 20,000 U.S. locations at no cost (if you're a qualifying AT&T subscriber) or as part of AT&T's own aggregated worldwide network of 80,000 locations ($20 per month for non-subscribers; $10 per month for those who qualify for free service)?
I checked with Boingo yesterday, and it has about 24,000 U.S. locations in its network. So...that's nearly 85 percent AT&T when the Wayport acquisition closes. But don't worry about Boingo. The company has a trump card: Airports.
Its acquisition a few years ago of Concourse Communications gave them the golden ticket: Boingo controls Wi-Fi access in most major airports in North America. AT&T and T-Mobile each have a handful that they operate, but Boingo has the big plums. Boingo operates the big NY/NJ airports (EWR, JFK, LGA), Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago (ORD and Midway), and on and on. The firm has 24 airports, most of them biggies, across the U.S.
Boingo told me some time ago that the Concourse acquisition was partly for revenue, partly for marketing, and partly for strategy. With airports in hand, it has better bargaining power with networks onto which it wants its users to roam, including outside the U.S.
If AT&T were to try to push to hard as the new Wayport owner with 85 percent of Boingo's domestic footprint, Boingo has the counterbalance of the critical airports that AT&T's business travelers want--and increasingly consumer and leisure travelers as those categories of passenger carry mobile devices that rely on a Wi-Fi network for their sole or best performance. (Think iPod Touch as well as iPhone.)
The end of Wayport spells the end of a long period in which many hotspot operators were in play. Now it's AT&T and a number of much smaller firms--T-Mobile will still have perhaps 3,000 locations--and company-operated networks, like Panera, run through in-house divisions or through managed services.
It's always in threes: Three big pieces of Wi-Fi news today, folks, and I'll post more information as I have it.
Wayport is being purchased for $275m by AT&T: This is a purely logical move, because Wayport not only has 10,000 McDonald's that they operate the Wi-Fi service for under a direct contract and resell to AT&T for the telecom's customers, but Wayport is also the managed services provider--the outsourced company--that handles AT&T's "internal" Wi-Fi network of Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and other locations. The deal is cost conservation, bringing outsourced expense inhouse. With the close of the deal, AT&T's Basic footprint--free to its broadband, laptop 3G, iPhone, and some BlackBerry users--expands from 17,000 U.S. to 20,000 U.S. locations, sweeping in premium hotels and other locations.
Is TKIP dead, already? A report in advance of the PacSec conference from IDG News Service says that researchers have found a non-brute-force method of sending data to a Wi-Fi client that it accepts was transmitted by an access point. I've gotten more information than the IDG reporter, and the attack works only on small packets and only with the weaker TKIP key type that's part of WPA and WPA2. The stronger AES key method isn't vulnerable. This isn't a generic vulnerability, and is likely to be of concern only to corporate users.
Virgin America has press flight set for 22-November: I'll be on the plane if all goes well. The promotional flight of the one Wi-Fi equipped craft will be followed each week by an additional plane being unwired with the whole fleet set for Internet access by Q2 2009.
Fon ups the ante on joining its network by raising its daily connection price to $5/€5 for "aliens": The Fon network of what they claim is nearly 200,000 active locations is all about participation. You can be a participant (a Fonero) and charge or not, but anyone with an active Fon hotspot gets free roaming on the entire network. Fon charges for access regardless of whether someone collects part of the fee (a Bill, not available in Japan, Russia, or the UK) or opts not to (a Linus).
The fee affects Aliens, those who aren't running Fon hotspots, and thus aren't contributing to the network's size. But $5 or €5 is a lot in most countries, and buys you a fair amount of time in an Internet cafe, making VoIP calls, or an hourly or daypass on a Wi-Fi hotspot network. At 5 monetary units, doesn't that push Aliens to finding a free or cheaper alternative?
The only explanation I can find of the price change is on the German Fon blog. That entry explains that they're trying to focus on building a community, and that raising the price should encourage more people to participate in sharing their Internet access. That doesn't square precisely with their goal of making money, though, because there's no monetization outside of Aliens paying fees to use the network. Like airport parking lots, you can only raise prices so far until people find cheaper, even if less convenient, alternatives.
[Thanks to Klaus Ernst for the price increase alert!]
European wholesale prices for Wi-Fi require Boingo to move global plan higher, restrict minutes: Boingo has a few tweaks in the works for its worldwide hotspot plans. The good news first: Their subscriptionless option, Boingo As You Go, will now include all the Americas at $8 per session. Central and South America used to have a higher charge. In neutral news, their unlimited US and Canada offering (Boingo Unlimited) remains $22 per month. Asia-Pacific As You Go pricing also remains the same, at $10 per day pass.
Now for the bad news: Boingo Global shoots up from $39 to $59 per month with a drop in minutes from 3,000 to 2,000; a 24-hour As You Go pass in Europe rises from $10 to $20. Boingo head David Hagan explained to me that the pricing in Europe has required this charge, because European operators charge by the minute for wholesale time. Hagan said that retail prices in European hotels and airports tend to be about 25 to 30 euros a day, far higher than most of the rest of the world.
"Ninety percent of our usage is less than 2,000 minutes per customer," Hagan noted, but that last 10 percent can be a killer. In hotels, "people get connected in a hotel and leave it up all night," which the hotel's Wi-Fi operators passes on as minutes used to Boingo.
As a transitional move, existing Global subscribers will get a year free of Boingo Mobile (normally $8 per month, and thus $96 for a year). They've started to send mailings to their Global customer base.
The Global plan launched about a year ago, and Boingo says that usage has been "extremely high," but that they're upside down in terms of what they're charging. Compared to other in-network plans in Europe, such as that offered by BT, Hagan says Boingo remains highly competitive for cross-network access. iPass, which has a similarly large worldwide footprint, although a broader business model, offers individual global plans for $45 per month, which also includes dial-up and some Ethernet connections.
On other fronts, Boingo software is now available for the top five handset makers' platforms worldwide. The firm is playing a bit of a waiting game with the iPhone, as they see whether Apple makes the necessary hooks available in its developer toolkit for Boingo to build the software package they'd like. Boingo's airport division continues to grow, too, Hagan says, where it provides both direct revenue and a conduit to distribute their software to business travelers.
Devicescape has gone legit on the iPhone, iPod touch: I was tired of entering hotspot passwords 15 months ago, a few days after I bought the first-generation (2.5G) iPhone. I've been waiting ever since for Devicescape to bring their Wi-Fi connection software to the iPhone, even at one point jailbreaking my iPhone--rendering it able to install any software, not just that approved by Apple--in order to use an early package they'd developed.
Devicescape has finally wended its way through Apple's tortuous application release process for the App Store, and its Easy Wi-Fi program can be yours for $1.99. (The application release date is 13-Aug-2008, but the press release about its availability showed up in my mailbox last night.)
I purchased Easy Wi-Fi, entered my Boingo account, cleaned up some personal passwords, and tried it out. Works like a charm. I'm about to head out on a trip (posting will be light, for those paying attention), and not having to enter passwords in airports will be a great pleasure.
The Wi-Fi sharing digital memory card Eye-Fi adds another option for its product line: If you've purchased or plan to purchase an Eye-Fi, starting 5-Oct-2008, you can upgrade the model of card you purchased by paying a yearly subscription fee. This provides more of a try-and-see mode for Eye-Fi's slightly more expensive offerings.
Eye-Fi divided its Wi-Fi SD card line-up into three parts earlier in the year: Home, which transfers to a computer ($80); Share, which uploads to a computer and to Eye-Fi's servers, which relay them to gallery, print, and social services ($100); and Explore, which ties in Wi-Fi positioning and one year of a Wayport hotspot subscription for uploads ($130). I wrote a long review of the Eye-Fi Explore on 12-Aug-2008.
If you bought a Home, you can upgrade to the Share service for $10 per year, and if you bought either a Home or Share, you can add geotagging for $15 per year and hotspot access for $15 per year. It's a smart move, since original Eye-Fi card buyers already had a firmware upgrade that converted their card into a Share model; they'll now be able upgrade to the full featureset. This is something I thought the company was offering at launch months ago, and I speculated it would be easy to add.
Eye-Fi also added two new photo sharing services: Apple's MobileMe and AdoramaPix. I cannot think of any other firm that Apple has partnered with to allow direct MobileMe uploads, although this may be technically less a big deal than it sounds. But I believe it's unique--only the iPhone and iPhoto software can transfers images into MobileMe's galleries; I'll need to investigate further. It's a good feather in Eye-Fi's cap.
Finally, Eye-Fi says they'll release tweaked firmware on 5-Oct as well that will double the speed of photo transfers from their cards to a computer on the local network.
AT&T seems to have added free Wi-Fi for its lowest-priced DSL customers: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is the only one with this story, and they've garbled a few of the details, but checking AT&T's public sites seems to confirm it. Previously, AT&T customers had to either have a fiber-optic U-Verse subscription, or a DSL line running at 1.5 Mbps downstream or faster to get free Wi-Fi Basic. The Basic pool covers most of the 17,000 U.S. hotspots, excluding some hotels and premium locations.
AT&T now says that any "FastConnect" subscription, even its DSL Lite offering of 768 Kbps down/128 Kbps up, qualifies for Wi-Fi Basic. The new statement reads: "AT&T Wi-Fi Basic service is FREE and already included if you subscribe to AT&T High Speed Internet, AT&T U-verseSM High Speed Internet, or AT&T FastAccess® DSL—all speed plans included.
There's still a $10 per month fee to upgrade to Wi-Fi Premier, which includes over 70,000 locations worldwide, along with the missing U.S. hotspots, but their Web site says that you have to have a 1.5 Mbps or faster connection to get the $10 per month upgrade. That may be out of date. That ordering page also says you need 1.5 Mbps or faster for free Wi-Fi, so that tends to confirm it hasn't been fixed. (It's even hosted at sbc.com, so perhaps that's part of the vestige of an older system, harder to update.)
Please note that iPhone subscribers still don't get free Wi-Fi on AT&T's Basic network.
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.
Microsoft signs three-year deal with Wayport for old and new Zune owners alike: This is a nice win for Zune users, Wayport, and McDonald's, each in their own way, and it's something Microsoft can simply write off as useful marketing--and a way to get people to try the latest models of their music player, which are being released on 16-September.
The Zune doesn't include a Web browser or any Internet focused features; it's not an iPod touch. But you can use Wi-Fi to browse the Zune Marketplace for music and games, and download new songs in programmed channels, music selections created by a variety of artists and stations. Zune offers both music purchases and a subscription for unlimited music listening. The new models range from $149 for an 8 GB flash model to $249 for a 120 GB hard drive-based player.
The feature I'm most interested in is Buy from FM, which leverages the built-in FM tuner and very low-bandwidth data that's already pushed over analog AM/FM. (See my write-up of this feature from last week.) With Buy from FM, when you're listening to radio stations that participate, you'll be able to click a button and buy the song you're listening to if you're connected to a Wi-Fi network. Zune Pass subscribers can download the song at no additional charge. If there's no Wi-Fi network, the song download or purchase is queued.
Wayport's marketing head Dan Lowden said, "Obviously, it's cool because folks who already own a Zune device and just need to do an upgrade will be able to use this just as with any of the new Zune devices that they start selling as soon as possible." (Microsoft may have a little accounting work to do: Sarbanes-Oxley doesn't let you enhance a product in the market without a fee if you realize the revenue all at once.)
The benefit for Wayport is to have yet another hefty but undisclosed fixed sum underlying its fixed infrastructure costs. In the past, Wayport has done deals with Nintendo, ZipIt, and Eye-Fi to allow all devices in a category unlimited access at McDonald's locations. McDonald's obviously gets more customers, or existing customers who spend more time or visit more frequently.
A partnership with a hotspot operator means that Microsoft doesn't have to provide tools and their users endure frustration in joining a network. "We're experts enabling one click to get this network connected," Lowden said. He noted that Wayport has opened test labs to work with manufacturers in Japan, San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle. "We're working with these guys from day 1 to make sure it's one click to get connected," he said. I'd also note that San Diego happens to be where Qualcomm's headquarters are located, not that Lowden gave me any tip-off there.
And I have to just say: burn, burn, burn on Apple. Despite Apple partnership with AT&T, which relies on Wayport to operate the AT&T-branded hotspot network and resells access to Wayport's own network, iPhone and iPod touch users have no inclusive Wi-Fi service. AT&T slipped a few times and ostensibly opened up their network or released details that iPhone users would gain free hotspot access--like all AT&T's fiber and all its standard and premium DSL customers.
As Wi-Fi becomes an expected part of any handheld gadget, the venues in which Wi-Fi is used multiply beyond cafes and hotels. Lifestyle locations--which could be clothing stores, nightclubs, ski resorts, and the tops of mountains suddenly become places where people want the same kind of access they have at home. Ultima thule is already unwired.
Latest Zune firmware, software allows Wi-Fi music purchases, FM tagging: Microsoft confirmed the 16-Sept-2008 release of new Zune firmware and players, allowing users of old and new devices alike to purchase music over Wi-Fi from the Zune Marketplace. The new firmware also sports FM tagging that uses information that some broadcasters will embed in their analog programming to tag songs for immediate purchase (single track) or download (Zune Pass subscription) over a Wi-Fi hotspot, or to queue for later download.
Apple added access for iPhone and iPod touch users to a subset of its iTunes Store over Wi-Fi--the awkwardly named iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store--more than a year ago, along with the ability to access that store at no cost from handhelds and laptops via Starbucks outlets in New York, Seattle, and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. (Chicago and Los Angeles have been "coming soon" for a year, but the new AT&T/Starbucks deal may have delayed opening up those markets.)
Terrestrial AM/FM radio stations would like to figure out how to remain meaningful in a world of streaming Internet radio. Their latest strategy is to embed information that allows a listener to mark a song they want, potentially getting a piece of music sold in this fashion. With FM tagging, Zune players tap into an existing very low-data-rate encoding protocols that allow stations to push out their call letters and current song information. By adding a very short code, broadcasters can allow Zunes to look up the appropriate song.
At launch, 450 stations from major networks, including Clear Channel, Entercom, and others, will broadcast tagging details. Note that Microsoft includes KEXP, a Seattle independent and alternative radio station, in its sample image, for the new models. KEXP, given a boost a few years ago through significant short-term funding by Paul Allen--funding that involved changing its call letters to his Experience Music Project museum initials--has an enormous listenership over the Internet ironically enough. KEXP will be a programming partner creating channels of music for the subscription-based Zune Pass service. (Zune Pass is $15 per month, all you can eat.)
This option could allow Microsoft to ink partnerships with hotspot networks to brand them with Zune compatibility, lets radio stations promote something other than iPods that they would have a direct relationship with (and, potentially, some kind of revenue stream from?), and may be part of breaking Apple's digital music hegemony. May be. Nobody's gotten rich betting against Apple for the last several years. (Details of revenue sharing with radio stations hasn't been discussed.)
Apple opted for a partnership with HD Radio broadcasters and equipment makers that has a relatively elaborate process of tagging songs. HD Radio is digital AM/FM, a patented and licensed method that has provoked a lot of controversy, and has lagged enormously in the marketplace, despite well over 1,000 stations (including many public radio stations) broadcasting in this digital format, some for over three years.
HD Radio tagging requires an HD radio receiver with a Tag button; pressing that button stores the song's tag information. The radio must also have an iPod dock. Docking an iPod syncs the tag information, and the next time the iPod is sync with iTunes, you can see which songs were tagged. Kind of tedious compared to "press a button while listening to an FM station and buy the song over Wi-Fi." (I've been writing about HD Radio for years, and even launched a blog that's gone moribund; the technology is interesting, but Internet radio on mobile devices coupled with on-demand music purchasing over cell and Wi-Fi may simply make HD Radio unnecessary for listeners.)
Microsoft has a more compelling "marketing story" for this feature than Apple, that's for sure. On the other hand, do you really need to tag songs from stations that play only the most popular music in a given format?
The Canadian branch of the coffee giant has secured a free Wi-Fi deal for customers: Just as Starbucks American stores are offering limited but free Wi-Fi in about 8,000 stores for its customers through a partnership with provider AT&T, Starbucks's northern brethren are opening its 650 company-operated locations that have Bell hotspots to free use by customers. Terms appear the same as in the states: 2 hours of free use per day with the regular use of a Starbucks Card.
And, as with the AT&T deal, Bell's Internet customers get unlimited access in Starbucks's stores. The deal starts up immediately, as Bell is the current operator. AT&T is transitioning to running Starbucks in the U.S., taking over by the end of 2008 from T-Mobile.
The latest chapter in the ongoing flirtation between AT&T's Wi-Fi hotspot network and the iPhone ends in rejection: The cellular giant is apparently a bit overexcited, and keeps releasing information about putative, future, free Wi-Fi access at 17,000 domestic Wi-Fi hotspots (McDonald's and Starbucks, mostly) for the iPhone. The page went up on their site promoting the program, a thousand articles bloomed on blogs, and then AT&T spokespeople said, sorry, false alarm. The page should be gone by now. AT&T said that it's "our intention to make [Wi-Fi] available to as many customers as possible, but we have no announcement at this time."
Some day, the company will officiate at the wedding of its Wi-Fi service and the iPhone, but the blessed day has been postponed again.
Chrysler's in-car Internet $30 per month: The service, announced today but leaked yesterday, will cost about $450 and $35 to $50 for installation, using Autonet's system. The monthly fee is $30. I'm not sure I'm in love with the idea, because at that price, you could buy a Junxion box or equipment from another maker, and have the flexibility to move the portable hotspot around or stick an adapter into a computer. It might make sense for fleet deployments, though.
Alltel launches domestic US hotspot service: Alltel is reselling Boingo's offering at $20 per month or $4 per day with no commitment. That's 25,000 US hotspots. The No. 5 cell operator, which is in the process of being acquired by Verizon, also runs a EVDO network available nationally as part of a Verizon partnership (Alltel covers a ton of areas Verizon doesn't), which costs $60 per month. Combine Wi-Fi and 3G and pay $70 per month.
Beijing's Wi-Fi network launches with a limp; no 3G at Olympics, either: The Wall Street Journal says the WiCity project that will cover the Olympic venue with Wi-Fi (about 100 sq km) got off to a rough start at its launch, with reports from their bureau and others of poor signal strength; no answer on the customer-support hotline; and broken links on the Web site. The blog entry also notes that visitors who expect 3G over their cell will be bitterly disappointed, as anyone in the industry knows: China didn't adopt either worldwide 3G standard. They claim that their own TD-SCDMA 3G technology will be up and running in time, but that won't really help visitors much, now will it? I'm surprised no waivers were granted to run temporary cell installations for EVDO and HSPA just for the games. Wouldn't have been that big a deal.
T-Mobile launches nationwide July 2nd with its home-line replacement service--or is it a cell plan extension service? I link here to Seattle Times's columnist Brier Dudley's take on @Home, T-Mobile's $10 per month unlimited domestic home calling service that leverages customers' existing cell service and broadband connection. The service launched in the Seattle area several months ago, and is expanding nationally, and Dudley interviews T-Mobile's boss Robert Dotson for the story. Dotson says T-Mobile doesn't see @Home as a way to get folks to necessarily cut their landline cord, but rather to extend the function of a cell phone inside the house, even if you're using cordless not cellular devices.
The service uses a router that accepts SIM cards for authentication, but the backhaul is pure VoIP over Internet. Regular POTS (plain old telephone service) phones can be plugged into the router. The router is also compatible with HotSpot@Home (an additional $10/month), which allows unlimited domestic calling over Wi-Fi using special handsets from T-Mobile; there are now 8 handset models available. Customers have to have at least a $40 single-line or $50 family plan service to add either @Home or HotSpot@Home.
Probably the key remaining advantage for Vonage and other Internet telephony services that typically charge $20 to $30 per month for unlimited calling is that they include unlimited calls to any number in Canada or the U.S., not just the U.S., as well as unmetered calls to landlines in dozens of other countries in Europe as well as Australia. For those who regularly call outside the U.S., the @Home service would quickly become ridiculously expensive for its international tolls.
Starbucks informed me that it, AT&T, and T-Mobile have signed a memorandum of understanding about the free Wi-Fi kerfuffle: T-Mobile filed a lawsuit a few days ago against Starbucks stating it wasn't involved in discussions about its network carrying free loyalty-awarded Wi-Fi via AT&T's authentication system. Now the three companies are apparently making nice.
The statement from Starbucks reads: "T-Mobile, AT&T and Starbucks have entered into a memorandum of understanding to resolve their disputes and are committed to providing a high quality WiFi experience for customers, including Starbucks Rewards Customers, at Starbucks locations nationwide."
My interpretation is Starbucks said, oops, our bad, and they're figuring out the dollars and cents. Sometimes companies move too rapidly. T-Mobile is a quasi-jilted suitor, although they get something out of AT&T transition, too, so they're not likely to cut any slack.
Reuters confirms that AT&T confirms the statement. I separately confirmed with T-Mobile that the statement is accurate as well.
T-Mobile filed a complaint in New York's Supreme Court over the Starbucks Card Rewards free Wi-Fi launched this week: T-Mobile spokesperson Peter Dobrow said this evening that his firm was surprised when the free Wi-Fi was launched in every market, because T-Mobile wasn't party to that deal. "Starbucks launched this promotion without involving T-Mobile," he said. Dobrow said that T-Mobile continues to operate 95 percent of the Starbucks locations in the U.S. under contract as AT&T transitions into its role as the new operator.
The lawsuit, which I've read (GigaOm also posted it), says that T-Mobile never agreed to nor was compensated for providing free service in stores. A link to AT&T's network in all markets except San Antonio, Tex., and Bakersfield, Calif., is handled on the backend entirely by T-Mobile. The suit notes, "If AT&T or Starbucks wanted to offer 'free' Wi-Fi in non-transitioned stores for Starbucks customers, as they are now doing, they should have--and, indeed, were contractually required to--negotiate such an arrangement with T-Mobile."
The crux is that while T-Mobile did agree to provide free roaming to AT&T subscribers, as defined in a bilateral roaming agreement the two firms signed, T-Mobile states the agreement doesn't allow other parties to roam for free. (That's most likely why we haven't seen AT&T's roaming partners, like Boingo and iPass, appear in the login menu, too.)
Representatives of Starbucks immediately available on a Friday night. A Reuters report quotes a Starbucks spokesperson who doesn't comment directly on the suit.
An AT&T spokesperson said via email that the company doesn't comment on other companies' lawsuits. AT&T is not a party to the suit, although it is mentioned throughout.
The lawsuit provides quite a bit of previously private detail about the transition agreement. T-Mobile says that the transition contract signed by all three parties, T-Mobile still had responsibility for and ownership of a market until all equipment in all stores in a defined market belong to AT&T. The agreement also called for exclusive roaming only for each party's existing subscribers in markets that were converted or still under T-Mobile's control until 4-Jan-2009.
T-Mobile states in the suit that they didn't learn of the planned launch of the free Wi-Fi service until 30-May-2008.
T-Mobile wants money, release from current obligations, and other damages. I expect that things have gone quite far for them to file a suit.
"We hope to come to an amicable solution, and sometimes you do have to file a complaint in order to make that happen," T-Mobile's Dobrow said. "It's easy to give something away for free if it's not yours."