Free Wi-Fi on Iowa Highways

By Eric Griffith

August 24, 2005

The deployment is part of a broader plan by I Spot to create an advertising-supported hotspot network.

Visitors to any of the 39 rest areas available along the Iowa Interstate highway system can now use their 802.11-based devices to access the Web for free. The hotspots, which are also found at eight welcome centers and two shopping malls, were deployed by Des Moines-based I Spot Networks.

I Spot approached the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) roughly two years ago with a proposal to offer the free hotspots as an amenity for motorists. The company won the multi-year contract, and in July 2004, began a seven-month trial deployment in eight rest areas. During that time, 118,000 users logged into the system, a large enough number to convince the DOT and I Spot to move ahead with plans to make the hotspots ubiquitous on the Iowa Interstate.

I Spot currently installs hotspots in stadiums, malls, and other public venues. The Highway Hotspots Travel Network is part of what company president Mark Wheeler calls “a broader initiative.”

The deployment came at no cost to the taxpayers of Iowa. I Spot’s business model relies upon ad sales and revenue from an affiliate program which will launch later this year.

“Our economic model is to create traffic using the service to view advertisements and other travel information,” says Wheeler. “We offer free Wi-Fi and then a travel information service, where we can be promoting hotels, restaurants and other businesses of traveler value.”

In order to help drivers find the new hotspots, the Iowa DOT has added a new section to their standard rest area signs. Now, along with “vending machines” and “weather radio” or first aid and handicap accessibility icons, motorists will now see “Wireless Internet” featured on the blue rest area signs. The hotspots are also being promoted through word of mouth and some local media coverage.

Users are given 30 free minutes per rest area per day. When a user logs on, he or she lands on a page without any advertising. Part of the arrangement with the DOT requires I Spot to supply only public service branding on the home page. Amber alerts, road conditions, weather reports and other helpful information are available, as well as links to the Bluesign+, I Spots ad-generated travel information service, which is modeled after the blue road signs drivers encounter on freeways.

“As you drive down the road in your car and you see a blue sign for the next exit, it will tell you if you can find lodging, food, gas, or other services,” says Wheeler. “Unlike a road sign where you might see a logo but no other details, in our digital environment, you can click the logo and come to a customized advertisement that then also links to a Web site. You can look for lodging five minutes or two hours from here. With one more click of the mouse, the traveler will be on the hotel reservation page. They go from brand awareness to online transaction completion for the advertiser.”

All Bluesign+ content is managed and generated by I Spot.

Users who wish to check e-mail or perform other Web-based functions outside of the rest area landing page or the Bluesign+ travel information service can do so for free by creating an Access Pass. To do so, users simply generate a Member ID and password, which will be valid at any of the Highway Hotspots access points. Those afraid of initiating future spam attacks by being forced to offer up an e-mail address or other information, Wheeler says, can rest easy.

“There are fields for ‘city,’ ‘state,’ and ‘zip,’ to capture some of that demographic information,” says Wheeler. “But we do have a privacy policy. We do not re-sell that information. And we do not require it. We have users we know nothing about. On your way to checking your e-mail, we just ensure you have access to our ad spots.”

I Spot hopes to expand their coverage area to other states, and to other locations within Iowa.

“We’re currently talking with other states’ DOTs,” says Wheeler, “and a lot of states are just now starting to think about this. We are going to be expanding in two ways—other state DOT contracts, and we’re also just about ready to launch our affiliate program. If you are a truck stop or other roadside location, you can become an affiliate and benefit from the travel referrals that will come off utilization of the network.”

Michigan is among the states unveiling versions of Wi-Fi (free or otherwise) at rest areas. But Wheeler says his company’s plan was not modeled on any other deployment he has seen.

“We did this on our own,” he says. “We started talking with our DOT more than two years ago. We approached them, and we were the first ones doing that. We developed this program from scratch. Many of the other states are looking at our model and looking at doing something very similar. Other states are thinking, ‘Let’s not re-invent the wheel.’”

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