The Internet service provider has begun selling "EarthLink Wireless High Speed," which will letcustomers use about 650 Wi-Fi networks in coffee shops, hotels, airports and other public areas throughout the country.
The deal makes EarthLink among the first major providers of traditional Internet access using telephone lines, cable modems or DSL (digital subscriber line) to sell services based on, also known as 802.11b. These are wireless networks that shower an area about 300 feet long with Internet access. Owners of laptops and PDAs (personal digital assistants) can access these networks with modems that are priced as low as $50.
For a monthly fee, consumers will be able to walk into designated locations using Wi-Fi and log on. The same registration information people use to access EarthLink's network will be needed to log on to the Wi-Fi network.
Analyst Aaron Vance of Synergy Research Group said many Internet providers want to sell Wi-Fi services but have been waiting for larger Internet providers such as EarthLink orto make the first move before jumping in themselves.
"This is what people have been waiting for: stronger backing by service providers," he said. "The real traction is when major carriers like EarthLink or MSN come onboard."
EarthLink Vice President Brent Cobb believes one thing standing in the way is the relatively high cost of using unlimited Wi-Fi service, though most DSL customers are used to a high cost. EarthLink plans to offer various subscriptions. The most expensive is $74.95 for unlimited access every month to any of the networks sprinkled throughout the country.
"The price of data has not come down," he said. "It's still in the upwards of $100 per month range. These price points are going to have to come down."
Aside from ISPs, cell phone service providers are also embracing Wi-Fi. VoiceStream Wireless owns a Wi-Fithat services hundreds of Starbucks locations. Most major carriers say they will add Wi-Fi into their stable of offerings.
Boingo behind the scenes
EarthLink has added the service by partnering with . Both companies were founded by Sky Dayton.
The agreement calls for EarthLink to resell the Boingo service but under its own brand name. EarthLink customers will be using the Wi-Fi networks that Boingo had already set up in 650 locations across the country; users who sign up for EarthLink's Wireles High-Speed plan will get software that finds these locations for them.
The pricing is based on the way Boingo charges its customers, Cobb said.
Aside from unlimited monthly access, Boingo charges for access in 24-hour chunks, during which someone can log on and off as many times as they want. A package of 10 "day connects" costs $25. A "day pass" costs $8.
Boingo has crafted similar arrangements with GoAmerica. That company offers wireless Internet access using wireless telephone networks. GoAmerica's Wi-Fi service will launch in a month, said Dave Hagan, president of Boingo Wireless.