Wi-Fi hotspots have an image problem. While 802.11 wireless networking in homes
and business may soon rival Budweiser in brand recognition, the public face
of Wi-Fi is languishing in near invisibility. With a new logo and some minimum
standards, the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi ZONE program hopes to heat up the hotspot
The Wi-Fi ZONE’s goal is to "really kick-start the hotspot market,"
says Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance,
the non-profit industry
consortium best known for the testing of 802.11-based networking products for
interoperability. The ZONE program sets a minimum standard for hotspot operators,
provides unified advertising and gives consumers some reassurance in the way
of a service baseline.
To take part in the program, hotspots must use Wi-Fi certified equipment, be
available 99 percent of the time, offer at least a 2 Mbps signal, have at minimum
a 128kbps connection to the Internet, and employ Virtual Private Networks for
The Wi-Fi ZONE is free for a year to qualified hotspot providers who apply
before March 31, 2003. After the cut-off date for free signups, a yearly membership
in the program starts at $100 for each license with a $2,000 maximum for each
hotspot. Wi-Fi Alliance members get 50 percent off on license fees and pay only
$5,000 for an unlimited number of licenses. Eaton says libraries, colleges and
public commons can take part in the Wi-Fi ZONE free of charge.
A Modest Proposal
Eaton said the Alliance "set the requirements to be modest" so most
applicants could be approved. Items such as roaming between different service
providers or unified billing — both years away from realizations — are mentioned
only as recommendations.
The Wi-Fi ZONE extends beyond the Alliance’s previous hardware certification
and 802.11 promotion efforts to address "more service-oriented issues,"
Along with becoming more aware of a hotspot’s existence and a greater assurance
of equipment quality, consumers of public Wi-Fi services will now have an identifiable
resource for complaints.
Hotspots carrying the Wi-Fi ZONE logo must also provide "real person customer
support" and include a customer support telephone number.
While Eaton says the Alliance will not handle individual disputes, the Wi-Fi
ZONE will "monitor patterns of complaints" from consumers. If a hotspot
accumulates enough negative complaints, the group will act.
The Wi-Fi Carrot and Stick
Losing the ability to display the Wi-Fi logo "is a pretty substantial
stick," assures C. Brian Grimm, the Wi-Fi Alliance spokesperson. An offending
hotspot would lose the associated promotional support, including an online listing
available to users searching for nearby Wi-Fi ZONE-approved locations.
Eaton says the Wi-Fi ZONE program is targeted at both small and large hotspot
providers. Smaller providers clearly benefit from a recognizable logo and help
marketing their service. Larger hotspot operators gain by the universal branding
allowing travelers to make the connection between their local and international
corporate identities. Eaton says two of the earliest providers to sign up are
Japan’s NTT Docomo and Sweden’s
Closer to home, there may be more of a problem getting the biggest hotspot providers
on board the Wi-Fi ZONE express.
Both Eaton and Grimm doubt the largest hotspot provider, T-Mobile,
will become part of the Wi-Fi ZONE branding program. Grimm calls it a "brand
management problem." Not only are T-Mobile’s expected 2,000 hotspots heavily
linked to the Starbucks Coffee Shop brand, but the provider also has agreements
with Borders bookstores, along with American, Delta and United airlines.
Possible Minimal Impact
"If the Wi-Fi Alliance is not able to secure the largest players in the
market place, its impact on the adoption of hotspot services will be minimal,"
says Sarah Kim, analyst for the Yankee
Group research firm.
Boingo Wireless is an aggregator of hotspot
providers. While the providers are independent, "we’ll certainly encourage
our hotspot partners to participate" in the Wi-Fi ZONE program, says Boingo’s
Sprint is also an investor in Boingo. The
company has been hinting at getting into the hotspot market, but may have been
waiting for such a unified brand before making its move.
"Millions of people a day walk through Wi-Fi hotspots and don’t even know
they could log onto a broadband connection. We need to start making the invisible
networks more visible to our collective customers," says Gunning.
Few Hotspot Subscribers
If you build it, they can’t come unless they know about it.
"The actual number of subscribers to hotspots is very low. One of the
main reasons probably is the lack of advertising hotspots tend to do,"
says Gemma Paulo, analyst with the In-Stat/MDR
"This is actually something everyone’s been waiting for," says Paulo.
Paulo believes the Wi-Fi Alliance’s ultimate goal is attracting the cellular
"This is an aggressive vision, but one that the Wi-Fi Alliance is surely
aiming for. Many cellular service providers are now members of the Wi-Fi Alliance
and are looking at ways of using hotspots as an add-on to their cell services,"
Indeed, Eaton says one result of the Wi-Fi ZONE branding initiative will be
eliminating the current fragmentation of the current hotspot landscape.
The Wi-Fi ZONE will give the Alliance "a steady revenue stream from potentially
thousands of hotspot providers around the world on a yearly basis" — just
at the cost of some window stickers, says John Chang, a senior analyst with
the Allied Business Intelligence research firm.
A list of operators that have signed up with the program will be released in
March, says Grimm.
Eaton says today, the Wi-Fi ZONE logo simply indicates there is Wi-Fi access
available at a coffee shop, hotel or airport waiting area. In the future, he
would like the Wi-Fi ZONE logo to approach the ubiquity of service now indicated
by a VISA logo or an ATM network indicator.