Public Space WiFi....

Jeff Barr
Wed, 19 Dec 2001 22:50:14 -0800

This is a great step forward -- single billing, and uniform pricing for 
WiFi access
running on top of the systems already used by existing Wireless ISPs.

As a frequent Wayport customer (in airports and hotels), this is something
that will definitely simplify my life.




The face of public space wireless service changes Thursday as Sky 
Dayton, founder of the dial-up Internet service provider Earthlink, 
launches Boingo Wireless. Boingo will build no hot spots. Instead, they 
are aggregating the network infrastructure of other companies and 
wrapping it up through a single user account, a single bill, and a 
single set of pricing. Dayton summarized the new firm's thrust: "Boingo 
Wireless is a non-infrastructure wireless ISP."

Their initial launch includes over 750 hot spots; Dayton estimates 
Boingo will encompass 5,000 by the end of 2002. The company did not 
announce partner networks, but Dayton said that their partners currently 
represent about 90 percent of hot spots outside of the MobileStar 
network. (MobileStar filed for bankruptcy in early December 2001; 
VoiceStream had a proposal to acquire its assets in early January 2002.)

The Boingo model places a software interface on top of the myriad of 
login and authentication systems used by individual wireless ISPs 
(wISPs). In interviews conducted over the last two weeks, Dayton said 
that the software handles and hides the interaction with its partner 
networks to provide a seamless login. The company has been working on 
the software since spring.

By requiring client software, initially available only for Windows, 
Boingo offers a variety of features in one bundle: single user login, 
WEP key management, Wi-Fi network profile management, preferred network 
priority, VPN (virtual private network) service to Boingo's public 
servers, quality of service (QoS) tracking, and connection logging.

Boingo also throws in authenticated SMTP mail service, which allows 
outbound email service anywhere on the Internet.

A Macintosh version of the connection software is planned for 2002, but 
the company did not want to issue a prediction for delivery. (Dayton 
himself is a committed Macintosh user.)

Pricing has initially been set in three tiers: a pay-as-you-go model, 
which requires a free account setup, at $7.95 per connection (up to 24 
hours in a single venue); a medium-usage package offering 10 of these 
connections for $24.95 per month, and $4.95 per additional connection; 
or $74.95 per month for unlimited connections. Dayton said that there is 
no bandwidth cap nor any surcharge for use at any partner location, 
including hotels.

Phil Belanger, VP for marketing at Wayport, alluded to this kind of 
charge as part of the panel I moderated on public space Wi-Fi at the 
802.11 Planet conference in November. In response to a question about 
working with iPass's pricing model, Belanger said that Wayport had 
renegotiated all of its hotel contracts in the last several months to 
allow a variety of pricing and revenue sharing with hotels.

This new pricing model should ripple through independent networks and 
partner networks who also run their own account plans. Dayton said, "The 
pricing that we helped establish in the last nine months as we've been 
putting all our deals together is very simple: it's not per bit, it's 
not per minute, it's 24-hour periods."

Although other network aggregators and resellers exist - including 
hereUare and NetNearU in the specific Wi-Fi space, and iPass and GRIC in 
the corporate roaming area - Boingo occupies a unique niche. hereUare 
and NetNearU are working to aggregate small networks, including single 
hot spots, into a larger whole, then offer back-office billing to those 
venues. iPass and GRIC started in the dial-up business, making it easier 
for corporate travelers to find a dial-up, and later wireless or wired 
connection wherever in the world they are, and pay a specific metered 
rate for access.

Boingo, on the other hand, wants to brand itself on top of 
infrastructure, leaving the building to its partners, and taking 
customer service, billing, fee settlement and roaming, and software 
development onto itself. The software is what differentiates Boingo from 
any other firm offering access, including iPass, which has the most 
sophisticated runner-up. Dayton said that Boingo would certainly want to 
work with aggregators, although he would not specify which firms Boingo 
initially had agreements with.

I have not yet had a chance to use the software, but I have seen a 
preview of its features and functions. It is worth a walkthrough of each 
of the elements. Each part of the program solves one or more problems 
for the roaming Wi-Fi user.

The software includes both a network sniffer and a location finder. The 
sniffer requires card drivers that support NDIS 5.1, the newest version 
of a protocol that abstracts communication between an operating system 
and drivers, allowing more robust, consistent, and simple interchange. 
Vendors are rapidly deploying updated drivers because of XP's support 
for them. The sniffer can show all networks and their signal strength in 
the vicinity, and brands any partner networks with a Boingo label (see 
screen capture). The location finder includes both Boingo partners and 
free community network hotspots that have allowed Boingo to list them. 
The software will constantly update its list of locations, checking at 
each connection, and uses XML-based structures to make downloads and 
installs quicker and more modular.

Connecting to a Boingo partner requires clicking a button. And that's 
it. Real-world experience will verify this ease of use, but this is the 
quintessence of the software and Boingo. Solving the login problem was 
their first and biggest challenge.

Christian Gunning, the firm's director of product management, said in an 
interview last week, "Every one of those carriers does authentication 
differently. Some of them use RADIUS [a standard ISP user login system], 
some of them don't, some of them use certificates." Dayton added, "We've 
got this very complex authentication token methodology that we've worked 
out" that handles each network's individual requirements.

The software also includes a Boingo VPN (virtual private network) 
client. This is a killer feature, and one I've been hoping a company 
would introduce. The VPN uses strong encryption to protect data before 
it leaves the user's machine until it arrives at the VPN server, which 
decrypts it. Boingo's VPN server sits on the public Internet, so that 
encrypted traffic is sent over the local wireless network, and through 
the intermediate network points before it emerges from Boingo's 
operation center.

This VPN client overrides security weaknesses and compromises that might 
allow a wireless sniffer or a network sniffer to extract user 
information before it leaves a local network node.

A future version of the Boingo client will also provide a pass-through 
VPN service for customers whose home networks already use VPN. This 
service will connect the user's machine with a static IP from Boingo's 
operation center so that a VPN user can connect even from networks that 
use NAT to assign non-routable Internet addresses for local machines.

The Boingo client uses Windows security to password-protect WEP keys for 
separate networks, and bundles a profile manager as well, similar to 
that found under Mac OS 9 or Windows XP. The password protection doesn't 
just protect a plaintext file; it uses the built-in Windows 
messaging-style encryption to lock the contents down in full.

The integration helps manage these profiles better, and the profiles can 
be reordered by priority, so that in an area with multiple networks, the 
priority affects the order in which networks are connected to. Gunning 
said, "If your office is right next to a Starbucks and you're competing 
with them for a signal," you just re-order your office network to a 
higher priority.

The company also decided to solve a traveler's most annoying dilemma: 
configuring outbound mail service. Most ISPs don't offer authenticated 
SMTP service or fully support the XTND XMIT option for POP that allows a 
login to transmit outbound email. Boingo includes its own account-based 
authenticated SMTP server, which can be used whether on or off its 
network of partners. This, along with the VPN service, will be available 
initially for free as part of even pay-as-you-go accounts.

The software displays a log of connections and network information to 
the user, but it also records a variety of parameters for quality of 
service monitoring. Dayton said that Boingo will use this information 
unconnected with user profiles "to first get quality of service on all 
the various networks." He said, "We learned this at Earthlink" that you 
don't know what's happening on the system side when people can't get 
through. "In this case, we're logging everything that happens from the 
user's perspective."

In focus groups Boingo conducted to better understand business traveler 
frustrating, Boingo found an almost universal sentiment that broadband 
would influence a travelers choice of flights and other venues.

For instance, because San Francisco International has no Wi-Fi network 
but San Jose has full Wayport coverage, Dayton said that 97 out of 100 
polled said they "would fly to San Jose if they can." Also, "they'll 
stay in hotels if they can get high-speed access."

Dayton drew deeply from his Earthlink experience in building Boingo, 
including the notion of a separate software client. Earthlink early on 
shipped a tool called TotalAccess, an automatic network configuration 
tool that also had a list of phone numbers that could be updated - 
remarkable in a day of manual SLIP and PPP tweaking. (Before that, 
Dayton recollected buying copies of Adam Engst's landmark Internet 
Starter Kit book, removing the floppies from the back, individually 
configuring the software on them for a particular user, and then sending 
it out to that new user.)

Dayton said that he learned in creating Earthlink that building a 
physical network is different than running a data layer on top of it. He 
wanted to split the infrastructure from billing and customer 
interaction. "Earthlink didn't go out and build modem networks and POPs 
- we left that to the UUNets of the world," he said.

A related issue was his analysis that no single infrastructure company 
could dominate. "Even if I had a billion dollars and set up thousands of 
locations, I could never in my network have a completely ubiquitous 

Instead, he turned to creating partnerships with existing firms who were 
looking to increase traffic over their networks. "The economics are such 
that if you own a fixed asset like a network all you're concerned with 
is loading that network," Dayton said. "The No. 1 problem in the public 
802.11 space in terms of financial viability is network loading: getting 
traffic, and getting revenue.

"Anybody who incurs the underlying infrastructure costs, no matter how 
much capital they have, big or small, whatever, at the end of the day, 
they have to rationalize this depreciation, they have to load networks."

Dayton brought over several former top-level Earthlink technology 
managers. His board includes Stewart Alsop (who gave me my first 
top-tier freelance writing assignment at InfoWorld back in 1994 when he 
was editor-in-chief), and John Sidgmore, the former CEO of UUnet. One of 
the company's advisors is Dave Farber, former CTO of the FCC, and a 
renowned expert on many technology issues, especially where spectrum and 
government cross.

Dayton said, "A lot of the little details which separate success and 
failure we've just spent the last year building. That's all we did; 
we're specialists."