A Broad Patent for Hotspots

On January 20, 2004, Nomadix announced a patent covering a key
element of any public access point. The patent covers “redirection to a portal
for any user regardless of their settings.” Although this is not the sort of
blanket patent that has threatened to destroy other Internet industries, it is
still somewhat broad.


The patent is No. 6,636,894 B1, and its full title is “Systems and Methods
for Redirecting User Having Transparent Computer Access to a Network Using a
Gateway Device Having Redirection Capability.”


Our first question to Dr. Joel Short, Nomadix co-founder, vice president, and
CTO, was whether Nomadix was going to shut down any hotspot networks. He was
quick to deny this. “We want to promote the market, not to shut networks down,”
he said. “We are encouraging vendors to license our software from us.”

Indeed, Proxim is already doing so, and others may follow.

One company that may find itself in difficulty, however, is ANTlabs, whose patent-pending
technology also offers “zero-configuration networking.”

Short claims that since his company filed for its patent in 1999, before most
of its competitors were founded and before most equipment vendors were founded,
anyone providing the same service will probably be in violation and will
probably not have what is known as “prior art.” “Prior art” is any work that
shows that the patent holder did not patent a unique item. If even one other
person had the same idea at the same time or an earlier time, the patent can be
dismissed through the expensive and arduous U.S. legal system.

Meanwhile, we asked Short if Nomadix planned to sue universities and small
ISPs. Short said that small operators are an important market for Nomadix. “We
have products for small operators. The technology is changing fast and folks who
did this themselves initially are now looking to the best of breed.”

We then asked Short if Nomadix would ever sue an ISP, who might be a
potential customer. Short said that it’s a matter of principle. “Any service
provider who provides a service should look to whoever owns the intellectual
property for that method. We have the Nomadix service engine and we also have
hardware platforms. We encourage people to license and not infringe.”

Asked what dollar amount Nomadix charges for a license, Short refused to talk
specifics, but said that licenses are per-deployment and per-venue and depend on
the number of users on the network.

Asked again whether there was a conflict of interest between asking for
license revenues and trying to sell products, Short insisted, “we are not just a
pure intellectual property company. We are encouraging people to use our
software.”

He added, “we are not focused on going after people with a patent lawsuit. We
want to promote the market. I cannot comment on specific incidents of
infringement or what we’ve done about that.”

Asked about a potential negative reaction to the patent, Short said that he
expected operators to embrace the technology. “Before we entered this market,
people had to change their settings to get access. The intellectual property
we’ve been able to develop goes beyond a simple redirect. It allows someone to
be connected even if they’re set to connect through a corporate proxy that sits
behind a firewall or to use a private DNS server.”

He added that it’s very convenient. “Otherwise someone on the road, such as
in a hotel, would have to change their settings. Instead, this is like an IT
admin in a box.”

He concluded that hotspots without a simple redirect are losing potential
customers. “The unique aspects of connecting in the public access market are
holding it back,” he said.

Getting connected in a nomadic world

Short
pointed out that when people take computers out of their homes and offices, and
try to connect them to the Internet at hotels, airports, and coffee shops,
problems arise that those people may not have faced before (see, for example,
the experience of Gerry Blackwell in part 1 and part 2 of
Wi-Fi Hotspots: Are They For Real?).

Nomadix software checks to see whether the user’s home page is available, and
if it is not available, the software ensures that the user can still connect
through a local login, instead of simply displaying a 404 “file not found” error
message.

For users who are configured to obtain DNS from a protected corporate source
that is unavailable to them when they leave the office, Nomadix software
redirects their DNS lookup to local servers, as specified by the hotspot
operator. “The standard way,” said Short, “was to tell each machine individually
which DNS servers were okay.”

Some companies and individuals like static IP addresses. For corporations,
static IPs make it easier to track traffic and can be used to prevent
unauthorized access (although this is not foolproof). “We have a previous patent
that allows the user to connect to a hotspot without reconfiguring their own
device,” noted Short.

In every case, the configuration provided by the Nomadix software does not
alter the configuration of the end user’s machine, ensuring that it will work
perfectly when it is returned to the home or office.

Looking to the future, Short started to talk about roaming. He said the
company is examining methods of allowing hotspots to authenticate people by
using the RADIUS servers of ISPs. The hotspot operator would benefit from
roaming, as would the ISP. “It eliminates the necessity of storing user
information at the hotspot,” said Short. “The hotspot operator gets a log of
usage but needs no account relationship with the users themselves.”

Of course security would be an issue, which is one reason why Nomadix’s
wireless roaming product is not yet available. Short said that new protocols
will go a long way towards solving this problem. “Protocols such as 802.1x and
EAP allow a security association between the mobile end user and the ISP to be
secure and mutually trusted. A hotspot operator won’t be able to get in the
middle of that flow.”

He added that although the access point vendors are ready with products
supporting new protocols, many of the clients remain out of date. New protocols
cannot be used until both access points and clients are compatible with them.

The eventual goal is as simple as the company’s name. “These are the first
steps in enabling truly nomadic computing, where you do not have to worry about
how you get connected, a truly ubiquitous public access network.”

But it seems obvious that if it is to deploy roaming, and to connect to the
RADIUS servers of the ISPs of the world, Nomadix will have to tread lightly with
its new patent, and not anger ISPs to the point where they are reluctant to work
with it.

Reprinted from ISP-Planet.

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