A Seat on the Front Porch
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Coffee shop owners, hoteliers and others don't just want to give away free Wi-Fi. They want to use that wireless connection to greet their customers with on-screen branding messages, advertising, in-store promotions and other communications.
In short, they want to say howdy, and companies like Front Porch are here to make the howdy happen.
Founded in 1998, the company's technology offers simplified means of creating and managing communications between Wi-Fi providers and users. Recently, it scored a big win when its product was selected as the technology of choice by free-hotspot.com, Europes largest and fastest growing free wireless service network.
"Europe has the least Wi-Fi penetration, but it is growing the fastest," says Raul Vaughn, Director of Strategic Services at Front Porch. "Everyone we are talking to there is still talking about individual businesses putting up their own hotspots."
That's territory Front Porch knows well, having cultivated just such a market in the U.S. since its inception in the late 1990s. In this latest iteration, the company has teamed with Anacapa Holdings, parent company of free-hotspot.com. Anacapa will utilize Front Porch technology to help European Wi-Fi operators build an ad-supported network in a revenue sharing model, Vaughn says. free-hotspot.com works with local, multi-national and national advertisers and agencies to develop online marketing programs and initiatives intended to reach Wi-Fi users.
To make the most of this opportunity, Front Porch executives won't be relying just on their partners across the pond. The company already has opened a three-person office in London in an effort to have a direct presence in their target market. "We think it's pretty important to maintain contact with the customer," Vaughn says. "And when you have someone who speaks with a British accent, they say things so much nicer than we do."
Analysts say there is good reason for purveyors of hotspot-related technologies to be looking toward the Continent for business opportunities.
In 2005, two of the top three Wi-Fi enabled cities in the world were European: the top three were London, New York and Paris, according to the latest research from hotspot information and service provider JiWire. The trend held among the top three countries: the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany.
Yet even with its recent European coup, Front Porch is keeping one eye firmly fixed on the United States, where Vaughn says a shifting emphasis in the Wi-Fi market is driving significant growth opportunities. He's talking about the push toward municipal Wi-Fi, which he predicts will soon reshape the market for Wi-Fi technologies and services.
"In the U.S., the main focus right now is on municipal wireless in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia, with people wanting to [provide high-speed connectivity to] entire cities and provide free or low-cost access to every man, woman and child," Vaughn says.
Over the past year, numerous cities large and small have put the wheels in motion to deploy citywide networks. They're looking to wireless to enhance public services, boost economic development and make the Internet more readily available to citizens.
Vaughn says his company may have an early lead in that its core product readily translates from the hotspot model to the municipal realm. "At any time, our existing technology can be applied to municipal wireless," he says.
Instead of delivering ads, he suggests, the same technology could be used to send emergency alerts across a broad population.
To help spread the word, the company has launched a marketing push. It will sponsor free Wi-Fi access at this spring's Muni Wi-Fi conference in Atlanta, as well as at the W2i digital cities convention in Houston. The firm also has joined Intel's "Digital Communities" initiative, an effort to help pilot communities design, develop and deploy new technologies.
Thus, even as Front Porch pursues its new European opportunities, the company is pushing hard to grab a piece of this emerging municipal market. "And we are making some pretty good inroads," Vaughn says.