Hotspot Road Trip

By Jeff Vance

September 20, 2004

Crossing the U.S. on a Wi-Fi quest, our reporter will be checking in using only the wireless access he can find on the road.

A year ago, I hit the road on a six-week cross-country trip. My theory was that as a writer all I needed was a laptop and a cell phone, and I could work anywhere. As the trip got underway, though, I faced a stark reality check.

As a writer who focuses on startups and trends in the communications industry, I guess I'd been smelling the industry's exhaust for too long, and it had warped my senses. I figured I could find hotspots pretty much anywhere there was a decent-sized town, and I also believed that I'd rarely be out of cell coverage unless I was, say, hiking in a remote corner of Utah.

Instead, I found cellular coverage gaps even along major interstates. I encountered a hotspot world bedeviled by a range of issues, including large coverage gaps, inconsistent pricing plans, sketchy customer service, and a vexing lack of roaming agreements.

A lot has changed in a year—or so I've been hearing. Granted, my own forays into hotspots during the last few months have been more fruitful than in the past, but is this representative of the country at large? In the next few weeks, my mission is to find out.

According to the Travel Industry Association, the demand for Wi-Fi services on the road continues to grow with more than 45 million people traveling on business each year, while wireless Internet connectivity is the number one requested amenity by business travelers today.

So far so good, but does a desire for hotel and airport amenities translate into a wider hotspot movement? The news this past year has been mixed. Some so-called "big name" providers have collapsed, pricing plans are still all over the map, and roaming agreements have been slow in coming.

However, there is plenty of good news to spark optimism. Service providers and hotspot aggregators in the forefront of the wireless movement, such as Boingo, iPass, and T-Mobile, have been aggressively building out their footprints. In fact, T-Mobile and iPass recently struck a roaming agreement, which hopefully signals a wider trend.

Meanwhile, the mom-and-pop grassroots explosion of hotspots in coffee shops, restaurants, bars, motels, and even entire sections of certain towns has continued unabated. Consider LittleItalyWiFi.

Phil Lavigna, who operates it, is doing so just to provide a service to this tight-knit community. The service blankets a two-block radius in the Little Italy neighborhood of San Diego, even competing with paid services by the likes of Surf and Sip and Boingo located in nearby coffee shops. Lavigna believes the paid and free services serve different niches. For instance, business travelers concerned with QoS and security will likely opt for a known entity. But Lavigna believes that offering free Wi-Fi is simply good public relations to the community his business, Color Graphics, serves.

Another recent trend in the Wi-Fi landscape is the metro-scale WLAN. Companies like Tropos, Vivato, and BelAir Networks, to name only a few, have created hardware being set up to make large-scale WLANs in such diverse places as Culver City, Calif., New Orleans, La., and Ottawa, Ontario.

Philadelphia's mayor, John Street, has gotten into the act, setting up a committee that is tasked with creating a "Wireless Philadelphia." The goal is to provide metro-wide Wi-Fi services—a Wi-Fi cloud, as defined by the Mobile Media Consortium (NMI) at the University of Georgia (see below)— that are either free or very cheap for end users.

Meanwhile, two-rust belt cities not typically considered to be high-tech trendsetters are quietly rolling out citywide Wi-Fi. In Cleveland, the city has worked in conjunction with Case Western Reserve University to deploy 1,500+ access points throughout the city. In Pittsburgh, a subscription Wi-Fi service run by 3 Rivers shut down because it had to compete with too many free, local hotspots.

The NMI has found that Wi-Fi is growing well beyond the "hotspot," expanding into "Wi-Fi zones" (an aggregation of local hotspots that share a single management system) and even "Wi-Fi clouds," which blanket a city or town with coverage through multiple hotspots. According to the NMI, there are already as many as 38 Wi-Fi clouds in the U.S., while new ones continue to come on line at a rapid clip. Some of the companies and cities operating these clouds even intend to get into the broadband-access game, delivering DSL-like services via mesh-networked Wi-Fi clouds.

Then there are the weird ones, like Wi-Fi hotspots at rest areas in the Midwest and a hotspot in a tattoo parlor in Roseville, Calif. The Personal Telco Project in Portland, Ore., though, gets the oddest-hotspot award. The all-volunteer group believes that Wi-Fi access should be a free commodity, and they're busily bringing access points online to make a Wi-Fi cloud over Portland. So far, not so strange. Where the story gets interesting is that the group purchased a used television van and has decked it out as a rolling access point. Similar things have been done with cars by NewburyOpen.net in Boston.

Of course, all of this hotspot growth naturally leads to questions about quality of service, security, convergence with voice service, and sustainable business models. What happens, for instance, when those dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular phones hit the market? Are hotspots ready to handle voice on networks that were originally intended to be data only?

Over the course of the next six weeks or so, I'll be venturing out in search of Wi-Fi. For this trip, I've purchased a vintage 1969 Pontiac Catalina convertible, a car that hearkens back to the heyday of the automobile road trip. I'll be driving this antique boat of a car on my quest to better understand the wider Wi-Fi landscape. I'll travel to some of this country's hotspot heavens, like Chicago and San Francisco, and I'll be searching for hotspots in the hinterlands, in places like Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Utah. I'll be trying to upload stories from truck stops, campgrounds, rest areas, and national parks. I'll go on occasional war-driving forays to find networks that aren't showing up in the Wi-Fi databases. I'll be pestering executives at hotspot service providers to get a better sense of future rollout plans and network strategies, and all the while, I'll be keeping you posted here at Wi-Fi Planet.

Jeff Vance is a freelance technology writer and consultant, who focuses on trends in wireless communications, next-generation networking, and Internet infrastructure. If you have ideas about hotspots he should visit or questions he should investigate while on the road, you can contact him at jwvance@zoomInternet.net.



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