Exclusive: Wireless Pioneer Anthony Townsend on AT&T/IBM/Intel Wi-Fi Announcement

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Date: Monday, December 9th, 2002, 08:06
Category: Archive

“Where’s the beef?” That’s how NYC Wireless‘ Anthony Townsend responds to last week’s announcement that three tech giants were building their own nationwide Wi-Fi wireless network in the US. The tech alliance has now made two announcements, each getting lavish New York Times coverage, the first in November called ‘Project Rainbow’ with Toshiba instead of IBM. Last week’s announcement even appropriated specific language from a Townsend interview about placing a hotspot within a five-minute walk of the population. Townsend: “My friends and I, we sit around every week and talk about setting up a nationwide network, but when are they going to do it? I think it would have been more newsworthy and more convincing had they actually launched some portion of that network . . . it’s going to be at least a year before you see them deploy any amount of hotspots.” Click ‘read more’ for the full interview.


“Where’s the beef?” That’s how NYC Wireless‘ Anthony Townsend responds to last week’s announcement that three tech giants were building their own nationwide Wi-Fi wireless network in the US. The tech alliance has now made two announcements, each getting lavish New York Times coverage, the first in November called ‘Project Rainbow’ with Toshiba instead of IBM. Last week’s announcement even appropriated specific language from a Townsend interview about placing a hotspot within a five-minute walk of the population. Townsend: “My friends and I, we sit around every week and talk about setting up a nationwide network, but when are they going to do it? I think it would have been more newsworthy and more convincing had they actually launched some portion of that network . . . it’s going to be at least a year before you see them deploy any amount of hotspots.” Here’s our interview:

PK: So there’s no actual network at this point. It seems to me looking at the announcement that their projected number of hotspots is unrealistic. We’ve heard promises like this before.

AT: I think they’re underestimating the cost and difficulty . . . It took five years to set up digital mobile networks. This is harder . . . this is real estate negotiations . . . you’re going to actually have to get inside the buildings. Our Cloud Networks is an effort to do that.

PK: Our readers will want to check out that site; the creation of partnerships here looks really promising. At least the AT&T/IBM/Intel partnership looks like it might have some resources behind it. It seems like someone is going to try to build a nationwide network.

AT: If anyone’s going to role out a nationwide network the people I would put my money on is the big wireless carriers. That’s what’s happened in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, the UK. It’s just a variation on a business they know . . . The US carriers are in a weaker position to do that. It’s more fragmented; the US market is really ripe for some consolidation. And the population density is lower. I would think they are more capable of building a network . . . This partnership seems designed to make the installation as expensive as possible. IBM benefits from installation time. AT&T benefits from metered bandwidth charges.

PK: And then there’s Intel, which really doesn’t know how to build a network. This all reminds me of the Excite@Home situation: the big-league guys let a separate company take the heat, spend all the money on building infrastructure and take all the losses. I mean, if this were really an AT&T, IBM, Intel network, instead of a spinoff company.

AT: It’s obvious that they want to distance themselves from the project. It has a high, high chance of failure — it may not even get off the ground.

PK: But a nationwide network is inevitable at some point, right?

AT: I don’t know if you’ll see a single, unified network. There’s not a dominant wireless carrier like you see in other countries. One of the philosophies that we developed at NYC Wireless . . . [is that the] number of points with free access are going to rapidly outnumber the pay hotspots. People are going to demand it the way they demand light or power outlets . . . The Asian model is the only thing I could see working, with a very high density of hotspots. It’s something like a $10-$15/mo add-on to your wireless bill.

PK: Really? $15 a month for unlimited access? That definitely would broad the appeal. Any readers out there in Japan with DoCoMo, let us know if you guys have this service; I want to hear about it!

AT: And there’s integrated billing; it shows up on your DoCoMo Bill. The only thing we have close to that is TMobile, but it’s not integrated. There’s a very limited number of people willing to pay for services like MobileStar.

PK: Right, pretty much all that happened when TMobile acquired MobileStar was they changed the logo on the site. MobileStar for newcomers to my columns is the service deployed largely in Starbucks. They’re continuing to promise vastly expanded hotspots — something we’ve been hearing about for about 15 months now but haven’t seen! And many readers here have been complaining about the high fees.

AT: We’re building a huge constituency behind this concept of free public hotspots. We’re launching ten new major hotspots in NYC in the spring, everything from large portions of Central Park, near the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, Riverside park . . . all financed by people who own property in the area and want to improve value. Universities have to compete for students, so they’re adding wireless. 20-25% of campuses have at least some wireless access. Dartmouth is special because they’re campuswide. I think in the next few years you’ll see that number rise to nearly 100% having some kind of wireless network.

PK: Wow, that’s exciting. Well, we look forward to the expanded access here in NYC — where you can walk into Bryant Park, for instance, and access a legal NYC Wireless network for free. There was a heated discussion last week about whether wireless is safe, whether free hotspots are the future; for all of these questions I encourage our readers to check out the NYC Wireless site. And if you’re not in New York, there are links there to wireless in other cities. Anthony, thanks for joining us and hope we’ll chat again soon — stay tuned to the PowerPage, folks, for more on the emerging Wi-Fi revolution.

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