Focusing on Free

By Eric Griffith

May 18, 2004

Service provider XDIGI admits that its plans for providing free Wi-Fi access sound utopian, but says that someone has to push to make wireless an amenity for everyone.

Extreme Digital Network (XDIGI) of Dallas has been around for a couple of years and had a couple of false starts, says CEO Joel Shapiro. After trying things like long distance wireless that turned out to be too expensive, the company has settled on the tried and true of Wi-Fi -- providing hotspots. The difference is, they intend to focus on venues that will provide the service for free to all.

"Our goal is to provide functional access points to do hotspots and hotzones and have the cost [to the end user] be non-existent," says Shapiro.

XDIGI is partnering with San Francisco based Sputnik. XDIGI was going to develop a system to deliver on its plan, but found Sputnik already had a process in place to do much the same thing. XDIGI has thus become a partner and value added reseller for Sputnik. Shapiro figures his company is one of its largest customers.

XDIGI will resell Sputnik plug-and-play products, such as the AP-160 and the outdoor-based AP-200. When connected to the broadband connection at a venue, the pre-configured units will connect back to servers run by XDIGI where they can start monitoring the hotspot. No truckrolls should be necessary.

Also preconfigured are login pages that an end-user would see -- they are still asked to sign up for an account even though the service is free, so XDIGI can track usage and send reports to venue owners.

It's the venue owners that will pay for the service. Shapiro says cost will vary depending on the setup, but says it averages about $100 per location.

The very first venue to light up will be the 80-room Holiday Inn at Solana Beach, Calif. The three floor structure will have access stretching across all rooms and common areas so you can "walk through to your room and never lose your connection," according to Shapiro. The company is in talks now with other hotels, plus shopping malls, apartment buildings, RV parks, restaurants, and is even working with a WISP on providing Wi-Fi to an entire neighborhood that can't otherwise get broadband.

When asked if the company would consider joining the virtual networks of hotspot aggregators, Shapiro says Boingo Wireless has already contacted him about the possibility. He's holding off, however, because he wants XDIGI to be associated more with free Wi-Fi than with an entity that takes money from end-users to get access.

"It sounds like we're reaching a little, trying to take a utopian view," says Shapiro. "But we know we have to make a profit. We just don't want that to be at the expense of the end-user. Wireless access should be an amenity, not an add-on.... it'll be like having towels in the room."



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