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Cometa revs up hot spot drive

The Wi-Fi network operator turns up the heat on hot spot installations with the announcement of 250 new locations, as it hopes to attract more carriers and service providers.

Wi-Fi network operator Cometa Networks is turning up the heat on hot spot installations with the announcement of 250 new locations as it hopes to attract more carriers and service providers.

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Cometa will announce on Tuesday at the WSA Tech Future 2003 conference its plans for 250 new hot spot installations in Seattle and that AT&T Wireless will be a service provider for those new locations at launch.

San Francisco-based Cometa plans to have 100 of the new hot spots running by Sept. 25 and the remaining 150 up by the end of the year. Prices for the hot spot service, which essentially provides broadband access over a Wi-Fi network, will be determined by service providers such as Sprint PCS, iPass and AT&T, which will make their announcements in the coming weeks, Cometa Chief Executive Gary Weis said.

"This will be the first market implementation of our business strategy, and we want to bring our service providers the broadest diversity (of hot spots) and the highest density" of customers, Weis said. "The value we bring is low-cost for establishing a (Wi-Fi network) footprint for providers and more customers for venue operators."

Unlike other network operators, the start-up is a wholesale low-cost provider of Wi-Fi network access for service companies. Instead of targeting just business travelers, Cometa is addressing the larger mass market in high traffic areas such as fast-food restaurants, book stores and coffee shops.

"Everyone else has been focused on the business traveler, and that's just one audience," said John Yunker, an analyst at research firm Pyramid Research. "Cometa's model of building out local area networks to address the mass consumer is a sound model, since low-cost and ease-of-use improvements have made Wi-Fi easier for the mass market to become familiar with."

The challenge for Cometa will be to ensure that network management costs are low enough to attract large-scale customers and yet high enough to still turn a profit.

"Wi-Fi doesn't favor many middle men, so you can't have very many layers," Yunker said.

The company will launch single-site locations, as well as zones for retail, restaurant and public areas.

Cometa is targeting Sept. 25 for its first 100 hot spots, so that it can participate in Intel's One Unwired Day promotion. On that day, the chipmaker will sponsor free broadband access via Wi-Fi networks in 4,000 hot spots.

"We want to increase awareness of Wi-Fi and stimulate trials through One Unwired Day," said Ann Lewnes, vice president of sales and marketing at Intel. "On a grander scale, we want to expedite the unwiring of the world."

Intel has been touting Wi-Fi as a means of differentiating its mobile processors, which come with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity through Centrino technology.

The company plans to use the same strategy in other cities to reach the widest possible types of consumers, Weis said.

"We will rely on our service providers to have the flexibility to attract and serve their subscribers," Weis said.

Cometa gained influence quickly through the companies that initially invested in it, which included Intel, IBM and AT&T. Formerly known as Project Rainbow, the company is focused on deploying hot spots throughout the United States.

Last week, Cometa announced that it would be the exclusive Wi-Fi provider for most Tully's coffee shops in Washington state, Oregon, Idaho and California. Tully's has 98 retail locations in the Northwest and another 130 in Asia.