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Weekly Column

Whyfi Not?: Bob Defends His Wireless Networking Idea

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Since writing my last column, I spent 52 hours driving across the U.S. with my two dogs, Roscoe and Gilmore. A drive like that with such uncomplaining and silent passengers (they mainly slept and sniffed other dogs at rest areas) gives plenty of time to think, and I mainly thought about last week’s column on WhyFi, my idea to make 802.11 wireless networking into a viable national ISP. Readers had plenty of comments and questions, and the long drive gave me a chance to come up with some answers.

But first I have to write about Roscoe and Gilmore, and why we were driving all the way from Santa Rosa, California, to Charleston, South Carolina. The drive came about because my young and beautiful wife is again pregnant (blame my devil sperm) and can’t see herself bringing another baby home to the house where our son Chase died of SIDS almost two years ago. And who am I to argue with her? So we’re headed to Charleston, where she is from, for a few months and maybe longer, which gives me the chance to fly to California every now and again in my little plane.

Everyone wins.

As for Roscoe and Gilmore, Roscoe is named for Colonel Roscoe Turner, the most famous race pilot from the 1930s. Turner wasn’t a colonel at all, but he called himself one, and he wore a powder blue uniform of his own design complete with jodhpur riding britches and cavalry boots. Turner was a master at self-promotion. My friend Ralph Korngold met Roscoe Turner at the 1937 Oakland Air Races when Turner came into the men’s room and shook every hand. Roscoe the dog has a similar personality. Gilmore, who is Roscoe’s littermate and the subject of a column I wrote last year on going to the pet psychic, is named after Roscoe Turner’s pet lion, Gilmore.

The lion flew with Turner for several years when he was sponsored by the Gilmore Oil Company’s Red Lion gasoline. My Gilmore isn’t such a good flier, which is why we were in the minivan, headed east.

Now back to WhyFi, which you’ll recall is my idea for giving wireless access points to broadband Internet users, who would get free access to a national wireless roaming network in exchange for allowing that access through their local wireless box. Readers mainly liked the idea, but thought it would never work. Some just thought it was stupid.

Who was going to pay for the backhaul �- the Internet bandwidth required to support the service? Why the people who get the free access points of course. That’s why they get free service -� in exchange for bandwidth and location.

If anyone can get free service AND free equipment, won’t everyone opt to be a provider leaving the WhyFiFolk with no paying customers? No, there are still nine dialup Internet users in the U.S. for every user with broadband access so there are plenty of potential paying retail customers and a lot more business customers. For example, I have a friend who owns the Domino’s Pizza franchise for Japan, and when I explained WhyFi to him, he immediately saw the value of putting it in his 700 stores and on his 7,700 delivery scooters if it cost nothing and saved current mobile phone costs. Imagine what service like that would do for Tokyo!

What’s to keep me from taking the free hardware and using it for my own purposes or selling it on eBay? That’s a lot of work to save, maybe $100, and the WhyFi equipment would probably be leased, not given, so selling it would be theft and pretty easily monitored on sites like eBay.

Why would the broadband ISPs allow it? They’d allow it because they are generally in a competitive environment and users can always switch to another ISP that is friendlier. Frankly, I think that after a short period of grumbling, the ISPs will embrace this concept and try to find a way to get a piece of the action.

Dane Jasper, who runs in Santa Rosa, is doing that by urging his broadband users to build and share their own hotspots that can be used solely by other broadband users. The carrot used by Dane to encourage participation is both free service, like WhyFi, and some revenue sharing applied to the DSL user’s monthly bill. Sonic has downtown Santa Rosa completely covered without spending up front for anything. He gets it.

Hey, isn’t this project going to cost a lot of money? Yup, I estimate the first million nodes will cost $150 million. But since Intel is willing to invest $150 million to own just a piece of 20,000 nodes, I’d say getting a million nodes for that kind of cash is cheap. Besides, venture capitalists these days PREFER bigger investments.

Won’t access points be scattered in a useless pattern? No, they’ll be scattered exactly like U.S. broadband use is scattered, which is to say the access points will be where the users are. This means poorer service in rural areas but it doesn’t mean small towns will be ill-served by any means. The biggest problem may actually be serving airports because of paid hotspot competition. It’s not like you can get very close to the terminal in anything but a taxi. However, I have an answer for that, too, which is detailed below.

And finally, what’s to keep some guy way out in the boonies from signing-up even though nobody can get close enough to share his bandwidth? If I were paying for bandwidth, I’d worry about that one. But since I am not paying for bandwidth, I don’t really mind subsidizing rural roaming.

Now back to the car with Roscoe and Gilmore. In 52 hours of driving, I came to feel e-mail deprived, which led to some experimenting. “War driving” is the expression for cruising around in a car looking for free WiFi service, and I did some war driving in every place I stopped for gas. Equipped with a notebook computer, appropriate stumbling software, and my trusty Super Cantenna sorta-high-gain antenna it never took me more than 10 minutes of driving to find service I could “borrow,” which means an access point with no WEP or MAC address filtering.

My war driving success with such primitive equipment (a Cantenna costs $19.95 if, like me, you are too lazy to build your own) made me think about how WhyFi might actually be used. My assumption and pretty much the assumption of every reader who mentioned it is that paying customers would probably be road warriors connecting while away from home.

But now I don’t think so. There will be plenty of road warriors, sure, but WhyFi could be even more useful as a fixed wireless installation for primary Internet use. I realized this when I finally got to Charleston and took my Cantenna up on the roof of our house. Using the higher gain antenna in what is admittedly a densely-populated area right next to the College of Charleston, I could detect more than 30 access points with half a dozen of those unprotected. Now imagine Cantennas all over a city �- paying customers for WhyFi service at $9.95 per month?

And that’s when I took my setup out to the Charleston Airport. My hope was that I could set up my Cantenna somewhere to blast a signal INTO the terminal where it could be received by potential customers. It worked from the parking lot, no problem. Then I tried the Fixed Base Operator (the outfit that sells gas to little planes on the other side of the field) and got fair service in the terminal even though it was almost a mile away. A better antenna would do an even better job so I think this idea of beaming service into gaps has merit.

I have no plans to actually build a WhyFi network, but I am sure it could be done and that it could be a commercial success. If any of you have $150 million, I say run with it.

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