Hotspot Road Trip, Part 7

By Jeff Vance

November 16, 2004

Entering San Francisco, you can see that hotzones are sometimes giving way to entire Wi-Fi cities, but the tipping point will likely wait for full Wi-Fi/cellular convergence.

When I was searching for hotels in San Francisco, a prerequisite was Wi-Fi access, of course. The Hotel des Arts, a small European-style hotel just outside of Chinatown, fit the bill. However, when I got to my room three floors above the hotel's only access point, the signal was weak enough to remind me of the dark days of dial-up.

So much for in-room Wi-Fi. I momentarily contemplated a visit to a nearby hardware store to gather the gear needed to construct a cantenna (a Yagi-style directional antenna crafted out of a Pringles can), but I figured that would be more bother than it was worth, especially in a city on the forefront of the Wi-Fi movement—so I promptly struck out in search of a hotspot.

Standing on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, I could throw a stone and hit two or three Starbucks, but this being a major city, I hoped for something more off the beaten path and unique to the town. On the corner, I liked the looks of Cafe de la Presse, a coffee shop and bookstand. My WiFinder lit up with three green lights, indicating a strong signal, so I ordered a cappuccino and settled in to do some online work.

When I powered up my laptop, I realized that Cafi de la Presse wasn't actually wireless at all and probably didn't need to be. With four nearby networks, only one of which was secure, they had more than enough adjacent bandwidth to leech off of. The T-Mobile signal from the Starbucks across the street came in strong, but an even better signal was being beamed from the lobby of the Hotel Triton, which was a free network to boot.

Planning the rest of my day, I consulted the Wi-Fi Hotspot List Database and found literally hundreds of advertised hotspots within the city. In fact, in a one-mile radius from my hotel, I found 135 hotspots—more in several blocks than many cities have in total.

Although San Francisco is arguably as unwired as any city, the mayor doesn't believe this is enough. As reported last month, mayor Gavin Newsom intends to unwire the entire city.

"We will not stop until every San Franciscan has access to free wireless Internet service," Newsom said. Already, the city offers a free Wi-Fi zone at Union Square, a central shopping and tourist area, and at SBC Park, the San Francisco Giants' ballpark. Next up, Newsom says, are wireless zones deployed in Chinatown, City Hall, and along the waterfront.

Gavin isn't alone in the notion of a Wi-Fi city. Philadelphia believes that it can turn the City of Brotherly Love into one big hotspot, doing so for about the cost of building one city library.

The larger goal of unwiring an entire city is a tall order. While the cost of wireless mesh transmitters has made large-area Wi-Fi coverage more feasible, several other issues emerge besides cost, such as service level agreements (SLAs) —if you offer a paid service, as Philadelphia intends to—and government competition with private sector service providers. Ubiquitous citywide Wi-Fi coverage is a tall order, and a more likely scenario is that cities will target high-traffic and underserved areas, while focusing first on public-safety networks.

If cities fall short of delivering ubiquitous wireless data coverage, expect the private sector to pick up the slack. Carriers have recently begun looking at Wi-Fi not as a threat, which many in the industry initially thought it would be, but as a means for achieving service differentiation and upping customer stickiness. "T-Mobile is investing in Wi-Fi to lay the groundwork for future revenue growth," said David Henderson, a spokesman for T-Mobile.

T-Mobile embraced Wi-Fi early, the driving force behind the hotspots at Starbucks, Borders Books & Music, FedEx Kinko's, and several airline clubs, including American and United. However, the company intends to move beyond the basic hotspot model soon. "Wi-Fi is not a standalone business for T-Mobile," Henderson said. "Rather, it is a complement to our nationwide wireless voice and data service." T-Mobile believes that customers will be willing to migrate up to higher service levels to achieve not only ubiquitous, but also flexible, data service.

If you are in a location with no hotspots, say up in Marin County, then you could still get coverage via the cellular network. Granted, the service is slow, but it's better than nothing. However, once you come back into the city and have hotspots available, your device automatically switches over, giving you a bandwidth boost and saving your airtime minutes.

For this type of service to really take off, a couple of things must happen. First, smart handheld devices need to reach a broader segment of the population. Few will seek out continuous wireless data on laptops (too cumbersome), but data-capable devices will change user patterns and redefine the types of information that users want at the fingertips all the time. Second, these networks will need to be converged networks. For this to really fly, it won't be a data-only play. Instead, users will turn to hotspots for voice as well, using them to conserve their peak airtime minutes, while also receiving better call quality.

T-Mobile recently partnered with Hewlett-Packard to unveil the iPAQ h6315, a wireless handheld smartphone that facilitates cellular and Wi-Fi network convergence. The unit automatically notifies users when a hotspot is available and switches over to whichever network offers the strongest signal and best bandwidth.

According to Richard Watson, director of product management for Longboard, a company tha makes voice applications for carriers, the key to converged service is getting dual-mode handsets like the iPAQ h6315 into the market. "With the advent of dual-mode devices, several of which are on the market now, carriers are able to deliver an almost constant wireless contact for a user," Watson said. "These devices are also one of the major factors that will drive Wi-Fi voice utilization."

Driving voice to WLANs opens up a slew of new problems, since WLANs were designed as data-only networks. As such, voice places new demands on those networks that they were not built to accommodate, such as QoS, voice prioritization, and seamless roaming. "Demand for converged network solutions is hot, but it will take 6-12 months for the hardware to catch up with that demand," Watson conceded.

Watson also pointed out that the UMA specification —which seeks to facilitate WLAN-cell convergence—is a good start, but even with UMA, many carriers need to upgrade their cellular systems to make dual-mode functionality a reality.

I'll dig more into this issue in my next post. Until then, suffice it to say that WLAN-cellular convergence presents a number of advantages both for service providers and end users, but expect plenty of growing pains in the industry before this vision becomes a reality.

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