Wi-Fi wants a few good "hot spots"

The 802.11 West conference will address sector frustrations, including a shortage of cafes, hotel lobbies and outdoor parks in which people can access networks for a low price.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
5 min read
SEATTLE--Laptop maker Toshiba's John Marston is one of Wi-Fi's few disappointed men.

The marketing director will be here Monday for the 802.11 West conference to introduce Toshiba's latest foray into the high-speed, low-cost wireless networks that have taken offices and homes by storm. He is also delivering warning that not all might be well in the land of Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi isn't exactly in trouble, he says, especially with an estimated 15 million homes and offices already installing these networks capable of showering a 300-foot area with the ability to wirelessly Web surf, or shuttle a television from room to room. However, there's a shortage of "public hot spots"--cafes, hotel lobbies, outdoor parks and other well-traveled urban areas in which people can access networks for a low price, he says.

It's these areas--especially cafes--that could prove to be Wi-Fi's major avenue to attract new customers. By Toshiba's count, there are now 1,200 public hot spots. Marston says there need to be at least 10,000 hot spots allowing wireless networking. These locations could offer people the opportunity to subscribe to the growing number of Wi-Fi service providers or spend the $500 to $1,000 for a home network, he says.

"We're frustrated to see only 1,200 public hot spots after so many years and so much money spent," Marston said. "There could be 10,000. The jury is still out."

Marston isn't the only one going to Seattle for the "802.11 West" conference in a sour state. Executives from giant companies such as Microsoft to smaller players such as RadioFrame Networks worry that Wi-Fi needs to find new places to be installed other than in offices and homes. Wi-Fi is also a one trick pony--essentially just a high?speed data transfer network--and needs more to do to creep into even more places, other executives attending the conference say.

The one key to all their plans, though, is expanding the number of Wi-Fi--also known as 802.11b--hot spots.

"Hot spots are not ubiquitous by any stretch," said EarthLink Vice President Brent Cobb. EarthLink is one of the first landline Internet providers to start offering Wi-Fi, otherwise known as 802.11b services.

Wi-Fi to go?
One of the biggest public hot spot providers is Boingo Wireless, which by Toshiba estimates has half of the for-pay hot spots in the country. Boingo Wireless sells monthly and daily access to any of the networks, spread throughout the country.

Boingo Wireless plans to have at least a thousand hot spots in its network by year's end, said spokesman Christian Gunning. The company hopes to string together a total of 5,000 areas where Boingo Wireless subscribers can access Wi-Fi networks on either a daily, monthly or all-you-can eat basis, he said.

But one thing standing in the way is the cash to do it. "There is still a lot of growth in the public space, and that growth requires capital--capital better spent on deploying more footprint," he said.

Toshiba aims to solve the cash crunch for public Wi-Fi spots with a self-installed kit that costs $200, with customers needing only to plug a piece of equipment into some Internet access and a power source, Marston said. Toshiba plans to introduce the kit on Monday.

Toshiba will do the rest, from authenticating people trying to log on, charging their credit cards for the access and splitting any profits with the hot spots. Toshiba hopes to sell the goods to hoteliers, coffee shop owners or other well-traveled areas that aren't already selling access to a wireless network, Marston said.

"We want to see so many hot spots that it will be the norm," he said. "When you go into a shop, you know it takes Visa and MasterCard; we want the same thing for hot spot."

Wi-Fi in need of a new trick
Wi-Fi's new generation of worriers also think wireless networking needs more to do. After all is said and done, Wi-Fi can really only shuttle information from one place to the next.

Wi-Fi executives draw parallels to the problems facing telephone service providers. For years, the only thing telephones could do was place voice calls, leaving companies reliant on one source of income. But competition drove down the price of telephone calls, forcing telephone companies to begin selling new services. Cell phone providers, for example, have risked billions building high-speed wireless data networks to find new sources of revenue.

Wi-Fi is now at the same juncture telephone companies were, some executives attending this week's conference contend. But it won't be for long, with a doubling of Wi-Fi networks projected in the next three years by various analysts.

"There is some concern whether we will continue to have such a broad deployment, or if we see need some very specific applications to allow for more penetration," said Warren Sly, RadioFrame Networks marketing director.

Most Wi-Fi equipment makers, from newcomers Pronto Wireless and its 7-inch-high access points to veteran Cisco Systems are instead focusing on improving the speed and quality of the equipment's basic purposes. Cisco, for instance, is trying to create a Wi-Fi Ethernet card for laptops that won't drain a battery by constantly looking for an access point. Instead, the access point will "wake" the card into action when it's near a network.

There are a handful of companies working on new applications for 802.11. One is ="http: www.wherenet.com="" homefr.htm"="">WhereNet, based in Santa Clara, Calif. Its equipment uses Wi-Fi networks to track merchandise in a warehouse even being able to locate it geographically. Toshiba has also developed a way for someone on a Wi-Fi network to find a nearby printer and print his or her document, even if it's in a coffee shop down the street.

Ringing in Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi makers have found at least one new thing for their products to do: act in concert with their wireless brethren, cell phones.

Several sessions at this week's conference are devoted to the growing expectations that cell phone providers will soon be selling access to Wi-Fi networks as part of their regular stable of offerings.

Carriers are expected to use Wi-Fi to augment their new "3G," or third-generation telephone networks that let them sell wireless Internet services. Most see Wi-Fi as the perfect complement to the new wireless Internet networks whose download speeds might not be enough to retrieve a huge presentation for a traveling salesperson. A Wi-Fi network, which operates at speeds at least 10 times faster than a dial-up, could do the trick, said Dave Hagan, Boingo Wireless president. Boingo Wireless is also attending the 802.11 West conference.

"We think the killer application is combined 3G networks," he said. "This is the next stage of where we think the Internet is going."

That would need partnerships between telephone companies and Wi-Fi networks, which are beginning to happen. VoiceStream Wireless already sells wireless access at about 600 Starbucks nationwide. Other carriers still remain on the Wi-Fi sidelines, although all indicate they are interested.

"Carriers are take a long time on strategy, but once they get it, they move quickly," Marston said. "It'll be a quiet period for another couple of months, then it'll be like D-Day."