Boingo Creates a Firestorm With Wi-Fi Communities

An effort by Boingo Wireless Inc., the Santa Monica, Calif.-based
start-up wireless Internet service provider (WISP), to include the free
access nodes of public Wi-Fi networks is drawing sharp criticism from the
individual members of the community groups that operate those access points.
And the ensuing firestorm has even caused Boingo Founder and CEO Sky Dayton
to chime into the discussions.

Boingo, which was founded by the Earthlink founder and chairman, launched
its nationwide service in January after scoring $15 million in funding from
investors that included Sprint Corp. The service is based on 802.11b
technology (a.k.a. Wi-Fi), which uses an unlicensed portion of the
electromagnetic spectrum.

But service providers like Boingo are trying to attract ISP subscribers
while organizations like Bay Area Wireless Users Group and NoCatNet have been
creating public Wi-Fi networks
where individuals can access the Internet free of charge. Last month, Boingo
began soliciting help from those community organizations, asking them to
contribute their access points to one centralized database, which would be
used as Boingo’s wholesale list to subscribers.

“There remain significant barriers to use: it’s hard for the average user
to find networks, connecting is difficult, and the typical short range of
Wi-Fi hot spots leads to inevitable network fragmentation. Thus, there isn’t
a lot of traffic on most public Wi-Fi nodes (commercial or free) today. This
needs to change for the revolution to take hold,” Dayton said late last week
in a posting to the discussion list.

But members from of New York City and the Personal Telco Project of
Portland, Ore., said Boingo’s offer is too one-sided in its favor. The
company has declined to offer node operators free access (limited or
unlimited) to the Boingo service. In exchange, Boingo is only offering
promotion of the group’s public network.

“There’s no real incentive for me to do it in the first place,” said
Dustin Goodwin, a member of and an operator of a node on
Cornelia Street in Manhattan. As for the publicity value of being part of
Boingo, “I don’t think we need Boingo for that. I prefer the distribution
method that exists. It seems to be working okay. I just feel Boingo is
getting more out of it.”

On Monday, co-founder Terry Schmidt advised all members
of the New York organization to decline Boingo’s offer.

“If you have already submitted your node to be listed, you may want to
send a letter revoking that permission, as I plan to do. Hopefully Boingo
will decide to be more supportive of the community networks than just
offering a branded version of their software,” Schmidt wrote.

To be sure, others have already tried to create the master list of Wi-Fi
nodes. Wi-Finder, for example, created an early database but since then the
Lafayette, Calif.-based company has focused more on developing and providing
network management tools. San Jose, Calif.-based HereUare Communications
Inc. also has a location finder. But because some WISP viewed HereUare’s
aggregating service as competitive to their own sales efforts, it failed to
attract a thorough list of service providers.

Still Boingo’s Dayton said he believes it is clear that commercial and
free Wi-Fi networks will co-exist. And many industry participants and
analysts agree with that long-term scenario.

“I would say there is a level of coexistence between the pay and the
free,” said Josh Wise, analyst at Allied Business Intelligence, who believes
both types of access will serve users differently. “If Boingo is feeling
threatened by these guys, I would tell them not to feel threatened by these
community-based groups.”

Oren Michels, CEO of Wi-Finder, agreed.

“It all boils down to: ‘you get what you pay for.’ A strong community network gets people to try the technology. But once you try it, it gets addictive. At a certain point, the community people will get tired of giving it away or the quality of service will degrade to the point where people are more than willing to pay.”

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends & analysis

News Around the Web