Hosted Hotspots for Big Customers

Netopia of Emeryville, Calif., has for some time now provided gateway products for carriers and ISPs to give to home users that include built in Wi-Fi. Now the company is turning its expertise to the hotspot market.

The company’s turnkey product and service combo will let carriers become wireless ISPs by providing the hardware to venue customers that would, more than likely, also buy broadband service from the carrier. The first customer is already up and running: BellSouth is using the products in a trial in Charlotte, N.C. The network there is called FastAccess.

The company hopes that not only will carriers buy into using the products, but also big corporate customers such as retailers that might want to provide hotspot functionality for visitors to their stores. Don’t expect to see Netopia products on the shelf at Best Buy.

Netopia’s hardware, the 3-D Reach Wi-Fi Gateway, can reportedly get twice the range of competitors according to Dano Ybarra, vice president of marketing at Netopia. It uses a specialized antenna system. The only difference between the units used in homes and hotspots is in the firmware.

The hotspot system is hosted by Netopia as well. They handle all the billing and so forth, though the equipment and Web site interface for signing on can be customized to look like that of the venue or carrier.

As an added bonus over other hotspot providers, Netopia is also building in “family friendly surfing” — they’re licensing black lists of URLs to prevent end-users at a public hotspot from downloading smut. Ybarra says its to protect venue owners from liability in case other customers are exposed to the content.

Its up to the venue owners and carriers whether to charge for this service. All will receive pre-paid cards to hand to customers with one hour or 24-hour access on them — the only options available. Venue owners would likely pay 40 to 60 dollars a month in addition to broadband charges.

Ybarra says some venues might want to give access away during lulls in traffic, and then charge for it during rush hours.

“With this model, Wendy’s could charge during peak hours and give it away at other times to attract customers,” says Ybarra, using Wendy’s as an example since the chain’s CEO recently said the restaurants would likely never embrace installing hotspots.

Netopia takes care of private labeling the cards, the Web log in pages, and more so the end users never know the company is involved (like in BellSouth’s trial). Because of the expense, Netopia would only be working with vendors doing very large orders for equipment, at around $300 to $400 per unit.

Whether the units will roam will also be up to the carriers buying the equipment. Ybarra says its a simple matter for his company to upgrade its authentication servers for access at certain locations by, for example, customers of an aggregator like iPass or Boingo.

BellSouth’s use of Netopia products in the FastAccess trial began March 3. It will let current DSL or dial-up Internet customers have free wireless access at the 100 planned hotspots it will set up in Charlotte’s Center City, in the hospital district, and at the city’s South Park. While its up in the air how successful BellSouth thinks it is, Netopia is ready to move forward.

“The good news is, it works,” say Ybarra.

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