Boingo Creates a Firestorm With Wi-Fi Communities

By Bob Liu

March 04, 2002

Boingo Wireless, the start-up Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP), is hoping community networks will help with the national rollout of its Wi-Fi service. But community groups are asking: 'What's in it for us?'

An effort by Boingo Wireless Inc., the Santa Monica, Calif.-based start-up wireless Internet service provider (WISP), to include the free access nodes of public Wi-Fi networks is drawing sharp criticism from the individual members of the community groups that operate those access points. And the ensuing firestorm has even caused Boingo Founder and CEO Sky Dayton to chime into the discussions.

Boingo, which was founded by the Earthlink founder and chairman, launched its nationwide service in January after scoring $15 million in funding from investors that included Sprint Corp. The service is based on 802.11b technology (a.k.a. Wi-Fi), which uses an unlicensed portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

But service providers like Boingo are trying to attract ISP subscribers while organizations like Bay Area Wireless Users Group and NoCatNet have been creating public Wi-Fi networks where individuals can access the Internet free of charge. Last month, Boingo began soliciting help from those community organizations, asking them to contribute their access points to one centralized database, which would be used as Boingo's wholesale list to subscribers.

"There remain significant barriers to use: it's hard for the average user to find networks, connecting is difficult, and the typical short range of Wi-Fi hot spots leads to inevitable network fragmentation. Thus, there isn't a lot of traffic on most public Wi-Fi nodes (commercial or free) today. This needs to change for the revolution to take hold," Dayton said late last week in a posting to the NYCWireless.net discussion list.

But members from NYCWireless.net of New York City and the Personal Telco Project of Portland, Ore., said Boingo's offer is too one-sided in its favor. The company has declined to offer node operators free access (limited or unlimited) to the Boingo service. In exchange, Boingo is only offering promotion of the group's public network.

"There's no real incentive for me to do it in the first place," said Dustin Goodwin, a member of NYCWireless.net and an operator of a node on Cornelia Street in Manhattan. As for the publicity value of being part of Boingo, "I don't think we need Boingo for that. I prefer the distribution method that exists. It seems to be working okay. I just feel Boingo is getting more out of it."

On Monday, NYCWireless.net co-founder Terry Schmidt advised all members of the New York organization to decline Boingo's offer.

"If you have already submitted your node to be listed, you may want to send a letter revoking that permission, as I plan to do. Hopefully Boingo will decide to be more supportive of the community networks than just offering a branded version of their software," Schmidt wrote.

To be sure, others have already tried to create the master list of Wi-Fi nodes. Wi-Finder, for example, created an early database but since then the Lafayette, Calif.-based company has focused more on developing and providing network management tools. San Jose, Calif.-based HereUare Communications Inc. also has a location finder. But because some WISP viewed HereUare's aggregating service as competitive to their own sales efforts, it failed to attract a thorough list of service providers.

Still Boingo's Dayton said he believes it is clear that commercial and free Wi-Fi networks will co-exist. And many industry participants and analysts agree with that long-term scenario.

"I would say there is a level of coexistence between the pay and the free," said Josh Wise, analyst at Allied Business Intelligence, who believes both types of access will serve users differently. "If Boingo is feeling threatened by these guys, I would tell them not to feel threatened by these community-based groups."

Oren Michels, CEO of Wi-Finder, agreed.

"It all boils down to: 'you get what you pay for.' A strong community network gets people to try the technology. But once you try it, it gets addictive. At a certain point, the community people will get tired of giving it away or the quality of service will degrade to the point where people are more than willing to pay."



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