The Isle of Wi-Fi — My Thoughts

I am not one to sit on the sidelines and wait for new technology to be handed to me, but I must admit that I am still sitting on the sidelines when it comes to signing up for a Wi-Fi subscription service. Should I sign up for T-Mobile HotSpot? Should I sign up for Boingo? Is Wayport the right answer? There have been lots of articles written about the need for new infrastructure (switching, routing, antenna technology, backhaul, etc.), but I think that less attention has been paid to some of the factors driving the “buy” decision for customers like me.

I must admit that I was really excited when I heard that Boingo and T-Mobile were going to make a big announcement at CTIA Wireless this year. After hearing the announcement, I was extremely disappointed. Instead of mentioning some master teaming agreement that would allow me to seamlessly roam between Boingo and T-Mobile HotSpots, I hear that T-Mobile is simply going to be using Boingo software to manage their hotspot network — that’s a great win for a private company such as Boingo, but that doesn’t really change my life.

Balkanization of Wi-Fi Networks – The number one reason that I have not signed up for a Wi-Fi account with any service provider is that there is no easy way for me to determine which service is the best for me. I spend a lot of time in Starbucks, so T-Mobile is attractive to me. I spend too much time in airports, many of which are Wayport-enabled. There are lots of random hotels, conferences, and event centers that I frequent who are on the Boingo network. If I am going to spend $50 a month (which is more than I pay for my cable broadband, I might add), I am not going to pay that to more than one provider. I would, however, be willing to pay a premium to have the right to roam to other providers for a pre-determined number of minutes/days per month. Every other network that I use offers me the ability to roam if I am willing to pay. If I use my cell phone in a foreign country or out-of-network location, I have the option to pay more if I really need connectivity. Even lowly dial-up Internet access allows me to dial a long-distance call to get Internet connectivity if my dial-up provider does not offer a local number where I am at the moment. How much more would I be willing to pay for this roaming? I am not sure, but I know that it is a must-have before I sign up.

Cost – For me, $50 a month is a lot to pay for a service that I will only use in what I will classify as “off-hours” (while traveling, after work, on the weekend, etc.). As long as a hotspot requires a T1 or DSL backhaul connection, I doubt that a service provider can afford to build a network and give me unlimited usage for significantly less than $50 per month.

There is, of course, a time-honored way in which to get business users to adopt relatively pricey technology that is of some business benefit — the corporate expense account. Think about PDAs, Blackberries, and cell phones — most of these things continue to proliferate because The Corporation is willing to sponsor the upfront acquisition cost and the monthly cost. Anecdotaly, I have not heard of many firms (outside of venture firms and some consulting firms) who have agreed to sponsor Wi-Fi access for their employees.

So, while there are lots of infrastructure investments that have to be made before Wi-Fi is even a two nines reliable, ubiquitous network, I think that there are lots of users who are willing to tolerate the current state of Wi-Fi coverage and reliability if the price is right and someone else will pay for it.