Hotspot Road Trip, Part 4

By Jeff Vance

October 20, 2004

An unscheduled pit stop (for auto repairs) in Iowa sets the stage for another pit stop (bathroom visit) and an encounter with a totally unexpected hotspot experience: the free unwired rest stop.

The Hotspot Road Trip stalled just over the border into Iowa, due to what was eventually diagnosed as a batch of bad gasoline. (With oil reserves low, there have been reports of dirty gasoline fouling engines from Florida to Pennsylvania.) After my 1969 Catalina was afflicted, the car started sputtering as if about to die and then backfiring, before settling down and seeming to run okay for a while—but only a while.

As the son of a mechanic, I know just enough about cars to get myself in trouble. After changing the fuel filter, eyeballing the carburetor, and dumping a bottle of Lucas Upper Cylinder Lubricant in the tank, the problem remained. I found a hotel in Iowa City—no hotspot, but at least an in-room data port—and I grudgingly handed the car over to a local mechanic. Making an appointment with a mechanic these days is like setting up a doctor's appointment. How does next week sound? Not good, but what are you going to do?

After some calling around, I finally found someone who could get to me within a couple of days, rather than a week or so. Nothing against the Midwest, but I had hoped that if I were to break down it would be somewhere more scenic, say Big Sur.

After several days spent doing nothing at the hotel pool, I finally got a mechanic to look at my car. He offered the bad-gas diagnosis, but he said it wasn't as bad as it could be, moisture in the gasoline, rather than acid, which had been the case in western Pennsylvania. He replaced a section of fuel line, which looked suspect, monkeyed with the carburetor, and re-replaced the fuel filter that was about 72 hours old.

A few days lost, a few hundred dollars out of pocket, and I was back on the road looking for hotspots.

Expect the unexpected
The first one I found was a bit of a surprise. Pulling over for a pit stop in Iowa, I swear I saw a sign advertising a hotspot in the rest area. Did I see that correctly?

A rest area hotspot?

Sure enough, I pulled into the Polk County Westbound Rest Area, fired up my laptop, and found a wireless signal. Better yet, the service was free, sponsored by area businesses.

"Rest areas are a natural for Wi-Fi," said Mark Wheeler, CEO of I Spot ACCESS. "Highway travelers have a high demand for hotspot Internet access simply because they are a long way from either the home or office."

I Spot ACCESS is an Iowa-based startup that is deploying hotspots along well-traveled highways, including the rest area I visited at milepost 147 along I-80. The company had initially started rolling out hotspots in more conventional venues, signing up hotels, restaurants, and retailers, but in late 2003, I Spot ACCESS launched Highway Hotspots, a network of hotspots targeting travelers. The idea is that if travelers have to venture too far off of their main route to find a hotspot, they'll simply skip it, and then local businesses lose a potential customer base. For businesses along interstates, finding new ways to lure in travelers is an ongoing challenge.

Giving travelers the business
I've mentioned before in these posts that I view the hotspot-as-amenities model as the most sustainable of the various business models for this sector. I Spot ACCESS shares this view. In restaurants, hotels and retail shops, the venues pay a monthly fee and their customers receive free wireless access. Additionally, advertisers reach Web surfers through splash pages.

At the rest areas, however, the hotspots are solely supported through advertising. The state transportation department pays no fee, but it gains a convenient way to provide tourist information, weather forecasts, and info on road conditions. How many times, after all, have you entered a rest area to gather tourist information, only to find the tourist desk locked up? Most are only open from 9-5, yet most travelers don't confine their drive times to normal business hours.

"Motorist response has been tremendous," Wheeler said. "After just a few months, the rest area program is already averaging over 200 users a day."

I Spot ACCESS currently offers wireless access at eight Iowa rest areas, and more are on the way, including welcome centers. In addition, a number of businesses offer access within a short drive of the interstate, giving travelers convenient access to Wi-Fi.

Iowa isn't the only state rolling out hotspots at rest areas. Texas intends to deploy hotspots at over 100 rest areas by October 2005, while Michigan will set up hotspots at rest areas, welcome centers, and state parks. Texas will provide free access for up to two hours. Michigan will provide free access to the state's tourist information site, but for general surfing and email, users will have to spring for a $7.95 day pass.

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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