Wi-Fi Rebel With a Cause

By Ed Sutherland

October 22, 2002

The consultant behind the Boston 'war car' has a mission: free wireless Internet access for consumers.

In a series of upcoming high-profile events, Boston's Michael Oh hopes to drive home the point that forgetting 802.11's free local roots could place efforts to commercialize access to Wi-Fi services firmly in 'park.'

Oh is a rebel with a cause -- he's against consumer end-users paying for wireless hotspot access.

Oh is president of Tech Superpowers, a Boston-based consultancy created in 1992 by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) undergrads. Headquartered on Boston's ritzy Newbury Street, the company has created NewburyOpen.net, an 802.11b network. Businesses joining the network pay a small startup cost, but aren't on the hook for monthly cable or DSL charges. Using the network is completely free.

The WiFi Hummer

The consultant gained national attention in early September by parking a car bristling with Wi-Fi gear outside a Starbucks coffee shop (with public Wi-Fi access provided by T-Mobile). Quickly labeled a "war car," the 1997 black Saturn sedan with roof-mounted Apple Airport Base Station and ORiNOCO antenna attached to the bumper created a mobile 150-foot "hotspot."

That move was followed by Oh in a "WiFi Hummer" decked out in similar 802.11b-based gear. This time, however, the target was not a commercial WLAN aggregator, but as an example of what Oh believes is the winning formula for bridging commercial and free Wi-Fi access. Anyone within 150 feet of the vehicle gets free Internet access.

Studded with antennas, the WiFi Hummer parked outside the Espresso Royale Cafi, may have looked out of place amid the classic brownstones, upscale restaurants and unique boutiques of Boston's Back Bay district. The area, the oldest part of the city, is playing a vital role in what Oh describes as a hybrid of pure commercial and completely free Wi-Fi access.

Apple and Wi-Fi

The NewburyOpen.Net network has attracted several area businesses by providing free access to customers using Apple laptops and an Airport Wi-Fi card.

Along with Tech Superpowers' own Internet Cafi, other businesses soon followed. The Trident Booksellers Cafi was the first business to join the network and began offering Web and e-mail access to customers. Other shops soon followed, including Zoe Home, a furniture store that includes a flat panel iMac on every computer desk. Down the street, people visiting The Wrap for a gourmet wrap or burrito can sit and connect to the network.

Oh says he'd like to see 10 to 15 local businesses join his network, a number he feels would indicate success.

Justifying Wi-Fi

While he says he "does not want to be the next T-Mobile," Oh believes such a business model -- charging subscribers for access to a Wi-Fi network -- in the end cannot justify the millions of dollars being spent to light up the nationwide Starbucks coffee shop chain.

Although hotel guests and airport patrons are the sort of "captive audiences" perfectly suited for paid 802.11 access, extending that to a coffee shop runs counter to the experience customers expect, according to Oh.

Along with speaking out against the high cost of commercial Wi-Fi, Oh is furthering the cause of his hybrid 802.11 networks by releasing the blueprints for creating your own Wi-Fi hotspot.

"What people are focusing on are the cars," says Oh. "Scores" of people have downloaded the instructions for making their own Wi-Fi cars, according to Oh.

802.11 Planet Conference Already providing public Wi-Fi access , but want to provide security for your users? Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, Dec. 3-5 in Santa Clara, CA. One of our sessions will cover Securing Hotspot Connections.

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