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Wi-Fi Sheds Its Blue Jean Image

Is Wi-Fi shedding its blue jeans for pin stripes as 802.11 looks to go commercial? Analysts and those in the trenches of fee-based hotspots see an inevitable trend as Wi-Fi availability goes nationwide.

When T-Mobile, previously known as VoiceStream, recently announced they planned to rollout commercial Wi-Fi service in some 2,000 Starbucks coffee shops, part of the pricing arrangement called for closing the network to everyone but their subscribers. It costs subscribers either $30 per month for unlimited connections or $2.99 for the first minute and 25 cents for each additional minute for customers walking into a Wi-Fi enabled Starbucks.

Analysts, like Isaac Ro of the Aberdeen Group, believe Wi-Fi providers must open their networks to each other, allowing users to "roam" between systems.

"It makes sense for hotspot providers to partner and allow for interregional roaming," says Ro. "That's the only way to justify monthly bills comparable to cell phones/landline ISPs," says the analyst.

After at first being competitors, cell phone providers and Wi-Fi operators are noticing a synergy -- a connection not lost on some of the nation's major wireless carriers.

A recent study of the impact of Wi-Fi on new third-generation (3G) cellular phone networks concluded that 802.11 would complement, not compete, with cellular carriers.

VoiceStream/T-Mobile was the first to realize giving cell phone subscribers the ability to logon to Wi-Fi networks would solve both the problem of dropped calls while also taking part in a growing technology. Other carriers were not far behind.

Christian Gunning, Director, Product Management for Boingo Wireless of Santa Monica, CA, says while free public Wi-Fi networks still exist, for-profit fee-based hotspots are a growing segment of the 802.11 market. Sprint has invested $15 million in Boingo. Users pay anywhere from $7.95 for 24 hours of unlimited access to $74.95 for a month of unlimited access to Boingo's network.

Ro believes for Boingo to survive, Sprint's involvement must go beyond the investor stage.

"It's unlikely that Boingo will be able to sustain a nationwide network over time without partnering with a nationwide voice carrier," says Ro, giving competitor T-Mobile an advantage.

Dan Lowden, Marketing Director for Wayport, says Boingo subscribers roam on its Wi-Fi network composed of 100,000 rooms at 470 hotels. Wayport is among some 1,200 members of PassOne, a group created in 2001 to decide how Wi-Fi networks should allow roaming.

"Wayport is 70 percent to 80 percent of the Boingo footprint," says Lowden. Wayport charges $29.95 for a month of Wi-Fi access.

Commercial WLAN hot spot operators increasingly find themselves stepping on the toes of more traditional community-based Wi-Fi providers.

As T-Mobile was about to announce their nationwide rollout of Wi-Fi, the company had to install Cisco software at all their APs to prevent their signals from being stepping on other nearby wireless networks. When two Wi-Fi signals interfere with each other, the result is the usual 300-foot range drops to 100 or 150 feet. Plus, computers searching for a Wi-Fi connection become confused when finding two closely located networks.

Boingo Wireless, just one of the Wi-Fi operators seeking to add ISPs to their mix of networks, sparked an angry reply when it sought to include free public hot spots. Saying the company would not offer node operators free access to Boingo's network, community groups, such as NYCWireless.net and Personal Telco Project of Portland, OR, recommended their members turn down the offer.

802.11 Planet Conference Is Wi-Fi getting a hold in the professional and enterprise space? Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, Dec. 3-5 in Santa Clara, CA. One of our sessions will be an Analyst Forum covering Trends and Prognostications for Wireless LAN.