Free and for-profit Net zones pop up everywhere
By D.C. Denison, Globe Staff, 9/9/2002
The two cafes are located on the same trendy block on Newbury Street,
between Hereford Street and Massachusetts Ave. The Trident Booksellers and
Cafe and Starbucks are separated by less than a hundred yards of red brick
But in the nascent field of WiFi technology, they are worlds apart.
Turn on a wirelessly enabled laptop computer inside the Booksellers Cafe and
you are automatically connected to the Internet through the free
NewburyOpen.net, an idealistic attempt to build a free and open wireless
community. A few doors down the street, Starbucks also offers wireless
Internet connectivity as part of a nationwide partnership with T-Mobile ...
for a fee.
At this point in the development of WiFi, both ''hotspots'' - the name that
has emerged for these wireless zones - represent distinct approaches to
dealing with the kinds of issues that typically influence the adoption of
new technology; both projects are also targeting radically different
markets. Yet it's somewhere around the middle of the block, where their
signals overlap for just a few yards in a mix of free and paid connectivity,
that the future of this new WiFi technology probably lies.
WiFi networks are difficult to track, because so many of the projects are
very small, and very local. A school builds a WiFi network that extends to
the edge of its campus; a company launches WiFi Internet access for its
employees; someone with a broadband Internet connection offers WiFi access
to a few neighbors. Since WiFi signals usually peter out after a few hundred
feet, they don't leave a big footprint.
But the technology is starting to gain visibility as it makes its way into
public spaces. In Boston, for example, a laptop owner with a $60 WiFi card
can tap into the Internet wireless hotspots at one of three locations at
Logan Airport: the American Airlines Admiral's Club, the same airline's
Flagship Lounge, and the AirTran waiting area in Terminal D.
Seventeen Boston area hotels offer WiFi connectivity, including the Four
Seasons and the Royal Sonesta. And local hotspot restaurant/cafes include
not only 61 Starbucks and the Trident Booksellers, but also The Wrap, a few
blocks up Newbury, and Mama Gaia's Cafe, near the MIT campus in Cambridge.
Typically, Boston's nearly 100 hotspots are a mix of idealistic free
networks and adventurous for-pay projects, many of them still searching for
a sustainable business model.
Other cities, notably San Francisco and New York, have more extensive WiFi
coverage. San Francisco, for example, has dozens of coffee shop hotspots,
from Bean There and Cool Beans to Wild Awakenings. San Francisco also has
twice as many wirelessly enabled hotels as Boston, a WiFi office building or
two, and even an online list of individuals willing to share their Internet
access with nearby WiFi enthusiasts. NYCWireless, a nonprofit free wireless
advocacy group, identifies 167 active wireless communties in its online map
of wireless New York.
WiFi, a playful compression of the term ''wireless fidelity,'' started as a
grass-roots phenomenon. The technology, which is based on the 802.11b
networking standard, began as a way to wirelessly network homes, allowing
home users to easily share Internet connections with a variety of computers
in the house. All that was needed was an inexpensive wireless transmitter
($200-$300) and small receiver cards (under $100). It wasn't long, however,
before the users began amplifying the signals and connecting businesses,
buildings, and entire neighborhoods.
The WiFi movement, which began on the West Coast, was a idealistic attempt
at ''community networking,'' allowing neighbors to share the cost of an
That's certainly what inspired Michael Oh, president of Tech Superpowers, a
Newbury Street-based supplier of Apple Macintosh sales, support, and
training. After reading an article on wireless networking in MIT's
Technology Review, Oh installed an antenna outside his third-floor office
window, and began offering WiFi connectivity to neighboring merchants.
''It just made sense,'' he said. ''We had the extra bandwidth and it was
cheap and easy to share it with the neighborhood.''
The Wrap, a smoothie and sandwich shop across the street, signed up
immediately. Then Oh approached Neila Hingorani, the general manager of the
Trident Booksellers and Cafe.
Hingorani, who had recently moved from techno-hip San Francisco, was
immediately attracted to the concept. And, after Oh hooked the Cafe up last
March, she was pleased with the response. ''We definitely have new, regular
customers who come here just because of the WiFi,'' she said.
For Oh, Trident's arrangement is the ideal application of WiFi.
''People come into a restaurant to sit down and relax,'' he said. ''Why not
give them the opportunity to log in and check their e-mail, or instant
message with a friend? It's value added.''
Less than six months later, however, there was a new WiFi installation on
the block. T-Mobile (formerly known as VoiceStream) launched WiFi service in
1,200 Starbucks cafes in the United States on Aug. 21; at the same time, the
partners announced that an additional 800 Starbucks would be featuring the
service by the end of the year. The Starbucks on lower Newbury Street, right
down the street from the Trident, was among the 61 wirelessly enabled
Starbucks in Boston.
There was a major difference, of course. The Starbucks/T-Mobile service
would be charging for the wireless Internet access: from $2.99 for 15
minutes to $29.99 a month. Starbucks' WiFi rollout was the most ambitious
commercial rollout of WiFi hotspots in the nation.
Frank Ramirez, director of business product marketing at T-Mobile USA Inc.,
did not have to search for words to describe his target audience.
''Road warriors,'' he said. ''Also local mobile professionals like real
estate agents, who want to be able to stop in a Starbucks with a client and
look at listings online. But our bread and butter will be business people.''
As part of the same campaign, T-Mobile also launched an effort to offer WiFi
connectivity in airports. In Boston, T-Mobile's WiFi hotspots now include
both the American Airlines Admiral's Club and its Flagship Lounge at Logan
''We view WiFi as a way to complement our other services,'' Ramirez said.
''And eventually they'll be moving closer together. For example, I can
envision a time when your location-aware phone will be able to tell you
where your closest WiFi hotspots are, even if you're in an unfamiliar
The Starbucks project, which includes the installation of a dedicated T1
high-speed Internet connection in each store, almost certainly far exceeds
any expected demand. Visits to three different Starbucks last week failed to
turn up one user of the new system. But Ramirez believes that adoption will
catch up with the market.
''Remember when modems were an add-on option for laptops?'' he asked. ''Then
manufacturers just started building them in. It's the same thing with WiFi
technology: The next generation of laptops and personal PCs will be built
with WiFi technology included. That will make a big difference.''
''Right now adoption is hampered by all the acronyms and technical
numbers,'' Ramirez added. ''People hear `802.11b' and they think, `This is
too geeky. I don't understand it. I can't use it.' But once the
functionality is built in, and they see people using it at Starbucks,
they'll feel more comfortable trying it.''
But should people have to pay for their wireless access to the Internet?
Michael Oh doesn't think so, and just a few days after the
T-Mobile/Starbucks announcement, he began outfitting a black Saturn Coupe
with a 6-foot WiFi antenna. On Labor Day, he parked it almost directly
across from Starbucks, offering free WiFi connectivity for anyone within 150
Oh fashioned the wireless car ''to signal to large corporations that
charging extravagant fees for wireless is wrong,'' he said. ''Wireless is
about freedom: no walls, no charges.''
Last Friday, Oh published a guide to building free, open wireless networks.
It's available on his Web site, www.newburyopen.net.
Despite the protest, T-Mobile's Ramirez does not see himself in conflict
with the free, open wireless movement.
''There's a place for those vendors,'' he said. ''But our customers want to
know who they are dealing with. They want security and the reliability that
comes with a real network company. We're not like Guido's Pizza, which
decides to offer WiFi as a free value-added service. We want to establish a
WiFi brand that has the reliability and consistency of a McDonald's or a
Burger King. That's a different goal than the free WiFi folks.''
Asked who's likely to prevail on Newbury Street and nationwide, Sarah Kim, a
wireless analyst with the Yankee Group, a Boston technology research firm,
hedges her comments.
''At this point the market is still in flux,'' Kim said. ''The business
model that T-Mobile has adopted has yet to be proven. There are very high
costs associated with building and maintaining the Starbucks network, and it
will be difficult to earn that back.
''The free networks will also always be with us,'' she said. ''And at this
point, when there isn't the recognition for WiFi, it's good to have any kind
of noise, to get the word out.''
Another source of positive noise about WiFi, noted Kim, is the college
population, which has grown accustomed to WiFi access.
''Most of the major universities now offer WiFi to students on campus,'' she
said. ''That means that many college students are getting, and using,
laptops with wireless cards. And then they bring those laptops along with
them when they graduate, and go out and get jobs. So those students are
going to drive adoption, too.''
Kim cited one potentially unfortunate outcome of the competition between the
two philosophies - unfortunate, at least, from the standpoint of the
profit-making services. ''The fact that these free networks existed before
some of the big commercial rollouts could cause users to ask, `Why should I
pay for this?''' she said.
''WiFi is going to grow,'' Kim said finally, ''but it will grow in fits and
starts. They'll be developments on the free side, then on the pay side. ...
Ultimately both groups are going to play a role.''
D.C. Denison can be reached at [EMAIL PROTECTED]
This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 9/9/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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