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Is that 'hot spot' hot or not?

A group whose seal of approval is thought indispensable by wireless-gear makers turns its attention to places where wireless Web access is offered for a fee.

A group whose certification mark for wireless gear is considered essential by U.S. manufacturers has now developed a seal of approval for commercial wireless "hot spots," places where wireless Web access is available to the public for a fee.

Through its new Wi-Fi Zone program, the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance aims to bring some law to a varied collection of about 4,000 hot spots in the United States, all offering different experiences for users, Chairman Dennis Eaton said Thursday.

"Our goal is to provide a reliable indicator that will allow customers to identify service providers who are committed to a common standard of quality," Eaton said.

The program requires, among other things, that a minimum connection speed of 128kbps be available to users, along with a Virtual Private Network, so people can send and receive data securely. Hot spots that meet the requirements will win the right to display a Wi-Fi Zone logo.

The alliance's standards appear as the market for hot spots is beginning to take off. The number of such access points in the United States is expected to grow more rapidly in 2003 than ever before, with established players like T-Mobile and Sky Dayton's Boingo Wireless expected to add hundreds of hot spots in places such as Starbucks coffeehouses, Borders bookstores, and major hotels.

Newcomers like Sprint PCS and Cometa Networks, backed by Intel, IBM and AT&T, plan to build nationwide networks as well.

Wi-Fi equipment maker Nomadix was among the first to announce its support for the new standards. It said Thursday that its equipment, used by several different wireless hot spot networks, already supports many of the Wi-Fi Zone requirements.

"As...adoption of the program grows, we anticipate the accelerated expansion of public-access network deployments," said John DiGiovanni, Nomadix marketing director.

And a representative for Boingo Wireless, which sells wireless access in about 900 locations, welcomed the effort, saying it would help publicize hot spots.

"Wi-Fi isn't visible in most locations; it is installed and available, but there's no signage," said Christian Gunning. "Millions of people a day pass through Wi-Fi hot spots and don't even know that there's a high-speed Internet connection available. As an industry, we have to be more aggressive at making the networks visible."

The companies that will be affected include Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), which range in size from T-Mobile, which sells wireless access in 2,000 Starbucks outlets, to smaller providers selling access inside local independent shops.

The Wi-Fi Alliance's Wi-Fi Certified label is considered essential for any wireless networking product sold in the United States. It's so far certified more than 500 different Wi-Fi products.

To earn its new Wi-Fi Zone label, hot spots will have to use Wi-Fi certified products. They will also have to make it possible for someone to connect using a Virtual Private Network, which is used to secure the data over the air. The Alliance, however, isn't requiring hot spots to use any stronger forms of security, including Wi-Fi Protected Access, a security standard the Alliance proposed in October, Wi-Fi Alliance representative Brian Grimm said Thursday.

"There are not a lot of WPA enabled devices on the market," Grimm said. "It would have been an onerous requirement."

To win certification, hot spots will also have to guarantee that customers will be connected to the Web up to 95 percent of the time they are using the network. Hot spots will also have to make customer support technicians available, either in person or via a 1-800 telephone number, according to the new requirements.

Representatives from many of the nation's major WISPs, including Wayport, Surf and Sip, and T-Mobile, either couldn't be reached for comment Thursday or deferred any comment until they had time to digest the newly published set of rules and regulations.