Wi-Fi Rebel With a Cause

In a series of upcoming high-profile events, Boston’s Michael Oh hopes to drive
home the point that forgetting 802.11’s free local roots could place efforts
to commercialize access to Wi-Fi services firmly in ‘park.’

Oh is a rebel with a cause — he’s against consumer end-users paying for wireless
hotspot access.

Oh is president of Tech Superpowers, a Boston-based consultancy created in
1992 by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) undergrads. Headquartered
on Boston’s ritzy Newbury Street, the company has created NewburyOpen.net, an 802.11b network. Businesses
joining the network pay a small startup cost, but aren’t on the hook for monthly
cable or DSL charges. Using the network is completely free.

The WiFi Hummer

The consultant gained national attention in early September by parking a car
bristling with Wi-Fi gear outside a Starbucks coffee shop (with public Wi-Fi
access provided by T-Mobile). Quickly labeled a "war car," the 1997
black Saturn sedan with roof-mounted Apple Airport Base Station and ORiNOCO
antenna attached to the bumper created a mobile 150-foot "hotspot."

That move was followed by Oh in a "WiFi Hummer" decked out in similar
802.11b-based gear. This time, however, the target was not a commercial WLAN
aggregator, but as an example of what Oh believes is the winning formula for
bridging commercial and free Wi-Fi access. Anyone within 150 feet of the vehicle
gets free Internet access.

Studded with antennas, the WiFi Hummer parked outside the Espresso Royale Cafi,
may have looked out of place amid the classic brownstones, upscale restaurants
and unique boutiques of Boston’s Back Bay district. The area, the oldest part
of the city, is playing a vital role in what Oh describes as a hybrid of pure
commercial and completely free Wi-Fi access.

Apple and Wi-Fi

The NewburyOpen.Net network has attracted several area businesses by providing
free access to customers using Apple laptops and an Airport Wi-Fi card.

Along with Tech Superpowers’ own Internet Cafi, other businesses soon followed.
The Trident Booksellers Cafi was the first business to join the network and
began offering Web and e-mail access to customers. Other shops soon followed,
including Zoe Home, a furniture store that includes a flat panel iMac on every
computer desk. Down the street, people visiting The Wrap for a gourmet wrap
or burrito can sit and connect to the network.

Oh says he’d like to see 10 to 15 local businesses join his network, a number
he feels would indicate success.

Justifying Wi-Fi

While he says he "does not want to be the next T-Mobile," Oh believes
such a business model — charging subscribers for access to a Wi-Fi network
— in the end cannot justify the millions of dollars being spent to light up
the nationwide Starbucks coffee shop chain.

Although hotel guests and airport patrons are the sort of "captive audiences"
perfectly suited for paid 802.11 access, extending that to a coffee shop runs
counter to the experience customers expect, according to Oh.

Along with speaking out against the high cost of commercial Wi-Fi, Oh is furthering
the cause of his hybrid 802.11 networks by releasing the blueprints for creating
your own Wi-Fi hotspot.

"What people are focusing on are the cars," says Oh. "Scores"
of people have downloaded the instructions
for making their own Wi-Fi cars
, according to Oh.

802.11 Planet Conference

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