ICOA Sampling AnchorFree Extras

Wi-Fi hotspot provider ICOA is offering its customers the opportunity to join AnchorFree’s hotspot community.

For the last six months, AnchorFree — which established itself by offering free hotspot services in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as an online directory of free hotspots — has been offering venues the opportunity to get a free Wi-Fi router that they can use for more than just customer Internet access. Customers are greeted by a browser login page that can be fully customized by venue owners with their own content, such as sales and specials or even simple blog entries, widgets with info like local movie listings, and more.

“Businesses can’t always tell customers about upcoming events, new drinks,” says Chris Bauman, marketing coordinator for AnchorFree. “Whatever they can think of to tell customers, this does it, over the Wi-Fi connection. That’s the main value proposition.”

AnchorFree also has an advertising option, and a Free Rewards program that will share revenue with venue owners who deliver the eyeballs. There’s no minimum nor limit on how little or how much — but the users have to be Web surfers, as the ads are viewed only in a browser.

ICOA, which operates hotspots in venues as varied as cafes, airports, hotels and RV parks, will apparently make the AnchorFree box available to all its own venue customers. ICOA will still authenticate users, but users can also register through AnchorFree with just a name and e-mail, which is then shared with venue owners. “It continues the open communication, which is valuable for the owner, and develops some customer loyalty,” claims Bauman. “The customer gets updates then about their favorite locations, finding out things they didn’t know otherwise.”

ICOA’s own billing system, part of its TollBooth OSS Platform, was upgraded in October 2006 to support time-based billing. It’s up to the venue owners whether they charge or not, and how much. ICOA provides Wi-Fi for, among others, Denny’s, Panera Bread, Bruegger’s Bagels and Au Bon Pain.

Bauman didn’t have any specific numbers on how many ICOA venues are using the AnchorFree service/router yet, but says it’s been a large conversion, and that “they’re ramping up.”

The router — a Buffalo Technology router with a change to the firmware inside — is actually free for any hotspot venue owner. Updates are happening all the time automatically, but as yet, AnchorFree has not centralized the smarts of the system. Each venue still needs a full router.

The goal is to make signing on at free hotspot venues as concise a procedure as you’d find at a for-fee hotspot like Starbucks. “You connect, open your browser, come to the landing page, and it asks for money,” says Bauman of T-Mobile’s service at the coffee shop chain. “So the big idea is this: a consistent experience at every location. The same for free Wi-Fi. That’s our vision.”

How do they offer it for free? “There’s enough benefit for the owner and for us, so there’s no reason to charge at this point,” says Bauman. He expects they’ll have over 1,000 venues using the system before the end of June; the company’s goal is to reach 10,000 locations. “We’d love to do that before the end of the year,” he says.

The company is testing an enterprise-class box to handle much larger amounts of traffic than is typical for them today in a cafe or restaurant. The new unit will be for hotels and convention centers.

AnchorFree offers access to its regularly updated usage statistics online, and currently lists California, Illinois, Texas, Washington and Georgia as the “Top 5 Wireless Regions in the United States.” San Francisco — AnchorFree’s hometown — is the number one city, with 467 free hotspots in the AnchorFree directory, which is currently limited to the U.S. and Canada.

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