Wi-Fi Wireless Goes Primetime

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Date: Friday, December 6th, 2002, 07:31
Category: Archive

The New York Times reports today that industry giants AT&T, IBM, and Intel have announced they will create a new company to create a nationwide Wi-Fi network in the United States, called Cometa Networks. The new company says it plans to deploy more than 20,000 wireless access points by the end of 2004, or one access point “in a five-minute walk in urban areas or a five-minute drive in suburban communities” in the US’ 50 largest metropolitan areas. Services would be marketed through wireless and wired telephone companies and ISPs.

The PowerPage has long covered Wi-Fi in its emergence into popularity, which reached a breakthrough when Apple adopted 802.11b in the original iBook and introduced its Airport base station. Access points have certainly remained the stumbling block for the technology. Currently, of large telco and companies only TMobile offers commercial Wi-Fi access, thanks to its acquisition of the failed MobileStar, which deployed widely in Starbucks in select metro areas. Walk into a Manhattan Starbucks and look at your Airport card, and you can log onto the Internet for less than the price of a latte. In fact, while it’s impossible not to be enthusiastic about the announcement as a fan of wireless Internet, there’s reason to be skeptical about the ambitious rollout strategy: deployment of access points winds up being more expensive and slower than expected, and people with telco background have too often come in cocky and gone out humbled. (Note: I mean commercial rollout, not free “grassroots” access points, which typically cost next to nothing to create.) Wired Magazine in its issue on Wi-Fi lamented the failure of MobileStar: take a look at PowerPage’s exclusive interview with Ali Tabassi, chief technology and development officer for MobileStar, in September of last year: apparently just a couple of weeks before Tabassi was presumably laid off. That said, if Cometa can make even a fraction of its goal, the landscape of wireless Internet access will be dramatically changed in this country.

So what about free, grassroots initiatives like NYC Wireless that, far more than the spotty commercial initiatives, have really pioneered use of this technology? I think they may find themselves even more in the spotlight than before. The more wireless access is available, the greater hunger for access is likely to become, and there’s no question the announcement by these industry giants gives the Wi-Fi movement much-needed credibility. These groups are likely to become even more important in the increasing commercialization of Wi-Fi: NYC Wireless in particular has dedicated itself to creating access in public spaces like Manhattan’s Bryant Park, and if you look at its network map, already serves many mixed-income locations. In the long haul, bringing the Internet into communities that lack access could be Wi-Fi’s greatest legacy, and that’s likely to require a real long-term, volunteer commitment that only grassroots organizations can provide. In the meantime, they are a crucial foothold in seeing that Wi-Fi access maps don’t just look like income distribution plots.

Stay tuned to the PowerPage as we bring you ongoing coverage of this emerging story, and let us know what you think. What would you be willing to pay — if anything — for real wireless access on a monthly basis, not just spotty occasional Starbucks locations?

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