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Wild About Wi-Fi
Wild About Wi-Fi

Connecting to the Internet - from wherever you are - may finally be just around the corner.

I want to be up-front about this article on the Wireless Ventures Conference and Boingo Wireless. It is unabashedly positive; a puff piece for wireless networks. Why? 'Cause I can't help myself! I'm a Wi-Fi fanatic, jonesing for a hotspot! My objectivity is overwhelmed by my need to be hooked to the high-speed Internet all the time. Wait! I admit I'm addicted, but...

Perhaps there is a higher purpose here. Maybe the realization of a more personalized and interconnected world has me in its grip. If you've read my articles on personalization in Wireless Business & Technology, you know I want all of this, of course. The first necessary step to a personalized world is having a wireless world. And companies like Boingo Wireless are bringing the wireless world closer to reality. Any data all the time is the vision of the pioneers who are making wireless networks happen. So, whether it's a higher purpose, or a deep dark need, I'm busy checking my Boingo database for the closest wireless network hotspot and heading over there for a broadband fix.

I fed my monkey, or saw the future (you pick, I've lost perspective), at the annual Wireless Ventures Conference (April 30-May 1) hosted by Technologic Partners, publisher of VentureWire. Based on what I saw and heard there, the revolution is on in a big way. Until recently, wireless networking was a hacker activity, difficult to use, based on several conflicting standards. Devotees used soldering irons and Pringles cans to enhance their signal-to-noise. The emerging standard, "eight oh two dot eleven bee" (802.11b) hasn't even been given a marketing name yet. But it will, based on what I saw at the conference, and my interview with David Hagen, the president of Boingo.

Held in Burlingame, California (near the San Francisco airport), the two-day Wireless Ventures conference featured 84 privately held companies presenting their business plans to an audience of venture capitalists, enthusiasts, and IT professionals. They were all wonderful (remember, don't expect a balanced article from me)! Technologic Partners chose 10 of these companies for the "Investor's Choice" award as most likely to succeed. You can check the companies out at www.wireless-ventures.com.

High-speed wireless networking is rapidly becoming part of mainstream networking. Richard Shaffer, the conference host and editor-in-chief of VentureWire said it best. "Wireless is not the pen, the PDA, or the radio. It's the experience." Attendees were invited to share that experience at the conference.

Tego Communications supplied the PC cards and wireless network for the event, so attendees could check out presenter Web sites, look up terms, even attend to their e-mail during the conference. The experience, according to the attendees I spoke with, was exhilarating. Imagine never, ever being without a broadband Internet connection. You could turn it off, of course, but would you?

Venture capital firms are paying attention to the buzz. There are lots of potential customers, especially enterprise customers who share my need for high-speed Wi-Fi. Lots of new companies are gearing up to meet the needs of those customers. Bill Burley, general partner of Benchmark Capital, explained why startups are attracted to Wi-Fi: "You can do the creep, crawl, walk, run strategy here. Big players are in there too, like TI and QUALCOMM. Cisco and Microsoft aren't players yet, but they want to be. There's new technology, emerging standards, and lots of innovation going on."

Among the keynote speakers at this year's conference were Adel Al-Saleh, general manager of global wireless e-business at IBM (watch for an article written by Al-Sadeh in the next issue of WBT; Eric Benhamou, chairman and CEO of Palm; Sky Dayton, chairman, CEO & founder, of Boingo Wireless; Mark Kelley, chief technology officer at Leap Wireless International; and Don Listwin, president and CEO of Openwave Systems.

Wireless networking makes the laptop your computer of choice. After all, you want to be mobile don't you? The gurus at the conference were predicting that new laptops would come equipped with wireless networking just like they are equipped for wired networking now. They said handheld PDAs would be the mobile device of choice as wireless networking becomes more pervasive.

The 84 companies presenting at the conference included aggregators, like Wi-Fi Metro and Boingo. Chipset producing companies, like Magis Networks, promised combination chips for delivery of data, voice, and video; Mesh Networks and other mesh networking companies were in there too, with wireless repeaters that easily extend and protect short-range networks. All manner of wireless service companies promised new applications, games, security fixes, and end-to-end solutions for anyone (and any company) ready to get unwired.

Sky Dayton, the founder and CEO of Boingo Wireless, sat down with Richard Shaffer (conference chair) for a keynote discussion. "802.11 has escape velocity," evangelized Sky. "Wi-Fi has emerged as the standard. Billions of dollars and the brightest minds are pointed at it. In the last couple of years the cost for access points has gone from $2,000 to $150, and the cost for cards from $200 to $50. Public space networks are springing up. It's the wired Internet all over again." Hey, he's not getting any arguments from me, or the rest of the audience as far as I could tell.

Tim Bresien wrote a great overview of Boingo Wireless in the January issue of Wireless Business & Technology. Boingo was coming out of beta, about to launch. In the article, Dayton outlined Boingo's mission: "to make it easy to find and connect to the wireless Internet wherever you are." The job of making this really happen, in sales, marketing, and business development, falls on the shoulders of Boingo's president, Dave Hagan. I spoke with Dave (on a wireless phone, of course), during the conference.

Boingo isn't beta anymore. "The service officially launched on January 22, 2002, with 400 locations; now there are 600 locations in the directory," said Dave. "Boingo's free wireless network sniffing software identifies free Wi-Fi sites as easily as Boingo sites, and negotiates access if it is available. The directory of Boingo partners is critical to our success," he continued. "It resides on the users' computers so they can easily find the closest hotspot. You don't need to be connected to find a connection. The directory updates itself whenever there are new listings, and it includes free community sites as well as the Boingo partner sites.

Dave comes to Boingo with extensive general management, marketing, and sales experience in the telecommunications and Internet space. He was CEO of FirstSource and before that, CEO of Ticketmaster CitySearch. He spent 15 years at Sprint in the U.S. and Canada, launched Sprint's consumer business in Canada, which grew from one employee (Dave) to 600 and a $600-million business, the largest alternative long-distance company in Canada. He also launched the Sprint ISP service there called, "Most Online," the second largest ISP.

"After FirstSource," said Dave, "I was kicking around LA. I knew I wanted to do wireless. I was talking to big companies about data ser-vices. I met Sky (Dayton) last summer and we spent a couple of weeks together. I liked him and what he was doing. I got charged up about Boingo. It kept me in LA."

Dave told me that Boingo was about to hit a milestone of 1,000 paid subscribers. I expect more zeros to be added to that subscriber number as their service and wireless networking moves into mainstream use. He also sees no conflict with cellular networks. "When 2.5G cellular networks and combination chipsets arrive, WLAN and cellular will dovetail nicely. Users will transparently move from high-speed hotspots to lower speed cellular access. WAP's weakness is security. With 802.11b you can use your office security connections, or VPN security. Smaller companies or home offices can use personal VPN and 128-bit encryption. It's a good fit.

"Boingo is interested in stimulating the WLAN footprint," said Dave. 'Boingo Ready' OEM boxes are coming soon. We're testing in 26 airports. We'll be making announcements soon. And we'll be raising more money in the fall to stimulate the growth."

I asked him how the ILECs (Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier) are going to respond to the WLAN explosion. After all, they are the ones supplying the primary Internet access with DSL and other high-speed connections. They could look at the growth of Wi-Fi as a revenue drain, since the phone company is making the same money per DSL line whether 1 or 100 users are networked to it.

"Our success is good for them. It creates more demand for broadband. Major carriers should like us because it will increase business for them. We will also be good for 2.5G (or 3G). Roaming from one network to the next will be transparent. 3G will be 40-60K throughput. Wi-Fi will ratchet that connection up to 11MB. They are complimentary technologies - Wi-Fi for a fast connection and ratchet down to a still acceptable throughput between hotspots."

I asked about service/support. There are many opportunities for a breakdown in wireless networking. When it works, it's wonderful, but it is emerging from the hands of people who do not fear to tinker.

"The best service wins and we are building a world-class service. We know there are a lot of moving parts to consider, but so far the problems have been solvable and there are fewer calls than we expected. Wi-Fi is fragmented, unlicensed, and growing geometrically. Chaos will reign. We excel at the customer relationship and have a nice lead at this point."

Dave Hagen is right. If Boingo Wireless is able to capture and keep the customer relationship they will be your wireless service of choice. The Wireless-Ventures conference pointed the way. Wireless networking is going to happen. It is too compelling not to happen. So, what are you waiting for? (Gads! Now I'm even including a plug!) Get an 802.11b card for your laptop, check out Boingo's software, find out where your neighborhood hotspots are and get unwired!

SIDEBAR
Getting on the Boingo Bandwagon

To get access to Boingo partners you have to pay. Boingo offers three plans. The most popular is "Boingo Pro" - $24.95 monthly for 10 connection days of access. Each time you connect to a Boingo partner site you get 24 hours of access from that site (a connection day). If you use more than 10 connection days per month, the charge is $4.95 per additional connection day. On the low end, a "Boingo As-You-Go" plan has no monthly charge, but there's a connection charge of $7.95 per day when you use it. A high-end "all-you-can-eat" "Boingo Unlimited" plan for $74.95 monthly, rounds out the pricing.

About Ron Dennis
Ron Dennis, Wi-Fi editor of Wireless Business & Technology, is a technology pioneer and a Palm fanatic. He's now reporting for WBT from the islands of Hawaii. He cofounded Livemind, Inc., led the third-party developers group at AOL, and created AOL's Web Hosting Service and Software Greenhouse. He has also guided several Internet startups.

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