Getting Down to Wi-Fi Business

CHICAGO — Unlike the theme of the ’90s movie,
“Field of Dreams,” getting hotspot technology
out in the public is much more than a “build it and
they will come” proposition.

More accurately, they may come, but will they return?

The hotel hosting the second annual Wireless Internet
Service Provider Convention (WISPCON) here this week
found it’s Wi-Fi service the brunt of an object lesson
in what not to do when building and offering a
wireless service for visiting customers.

The Oak Brook Hills Resort is a 14-story luxury hotel
catering to business people and avid golfers (with an
18-hole golf course on the premises), but has only 10
access points providing wireless Internet
connections to the hotel guests.

According to the hotel’s system administrator, rooms
on the far end of the building on every floor or those
found next to the ventilation system (the metal in the
vents dampen the signal) have trouble keeping a
connection. A test of one of those rooms saw frequent
signal cutoffs and an ever-increasing link degradation
(between 1-10 percent link quality).

Oak Brook’s quality of service — or lack thereof, in
some cases — was quickly pointed out by the hundreds
of wireless technicians attending the convention.

“If you can’t afford to do it right, it might be best
if you cover something else,” said Allen Marsalis,
president of Shreve.net, speaking Tuesday to a crowd
of WISP attendees considering a move into providing
802.11b service in their communities.

WISPs around the country are taking a second look at
hotspots as a business model, something most were
hesitant to do a couple years ago when coffee shops,
airports and college campuses started sprouting
wireless Internet havens of their own.

It would seem a safe assumption fixed wireless ISPs
would flock to hotspots as another revenue market to
target, given both technologies deal primarily in the
license-exempt 2.4 GHz spectrum. But from the
beginning, most WISPs found hotspots “faddish” and
difficult to justify from an investment point of view.

Setting up a hotspot is much more than putting up an
access point and letting customers onto the network. It
involves finding a backhaul from the location (usually
a T-1 line leased from the local telephone company)
and finding a pricing model that puts money in the
provider’s pocketbook.

It also means sharing profits with other providers.
By their very nature, hotspot users don’t want to be
tied down in one area for their access — they want
mobility. Towards that end, providers will need to
set up roaming deals with other providers who will get
a cut in the customer’s fees.

“You have to partner with other providers,” said Dr.
Butch Anton, chief technology officer at GemTek
Systems. Your customers are mobile, they aren’t going
to want to go to one area all the time and you can’t
possibly put [an access point] up everywhere.”

Finding a place to set up a hotspot in the first place
can be difficult. Kelley McNeill, a vice president of
marketing at Wilmington, NC, -based Communication
Specialists, said she commonly runs into problems
finding a business owner who actually wants people who
are going to park their laptop.

“One of the concerns is that owners don’t want people
loitering in their building all day,” she said, and
surfing on the Internet (i.e., not not buying
anything).

Another problem is security. Most wireless Internet
users have heard of war chalking and war driving at
one time or another. ISPs, by nature, don’t want to
build a public access point just to have every yahoo with a
Pringles can stealing, Anton said.

“Hotspots are a transient service,” he said. “There’s
a nameless, faceless person who comes onto your
network.”

For Marsalis, who until this year didn’t consider
Wi-Fi as a business service and reluctantly decided to
deploy some hotspots because of the service’s
popularity in Shreveport, LA, its been a learning
process.

“[Hotspots] are a compromise,” Marsalis said. “We, as
ISPs, like to lock down our systems but that doesn’t
really work with WLANs [wireless local area networks].
Some of the standards coming out, like 802.1x, are
working to make [our networks] safer. I’m confident
that as hotspots gain in popularity, it’ll get
better.”

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