A Broad Patent for Hotspots

A Broad Patent for Hotspots

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Alex Goldman

January 27, 2004

Last week, Nomadix announced that it has been awarded a patent covering key aspects of revenue generation at hotspots. We asked Nomadix’s co-founder and CTO how the company plans to use its new power.

On January 20, 2004, Nomadix announced a patent covering a key element of any public access point. The patent covers “redirection to a portal for any user regardless of their settings.” Although this is not the sort of blanket patent that has threatened to destroy other Internet industries, it is still somewhat broad.

The patent is No. 6,636,894 B1, and its full title is “Systems and Methods for Redirecting User Having Transparent Computer Access to a Network Using a Gateway Device Having Redirection Capability.”

Our first question to Dr. Joel Short, Nomadix co-founder, vice president, and CTO, was whether Nomadix was going to shut down any hotspot networks. He was quick to deny this. “We want to promote the market, not to shut networks down,” he said. “We are encouraging vendors to license our software from us.”

Indeed, Proxim is already doing so, and others may follow.

One company that may find itself in difficulty, however, is ANTlabs, whose patent-pending technology also offers “zero-configuration networking.”

Short claims that since his company filed for its patent in 1999, before most of its competitors were founded and before most equipment vendors were founded, anyone providing the same service will probably be in violation and will probably not have what is known as “prior art.” “Prior art” is any work that shows that the patent holder did not patent a unique item. If even one other person had the same idea at the same time or an earlier time, the patent can be dismissed through the expensive and arduous U.S. legal system.

Meanwhile, we asked Short if Nomadix planned to sue universities and small ISPs. Short said that small operators are an important market for Nomadix. “We have products for small operators. The technology is changing fast and folks who did this themselves initially are now looking to the best of breed.”

We then asked Short if Nomadix would ever sue an ISP, who might be a potential customer. Short said that it’s a matter of principle. “Any service provider who provides a service should look to whoever owns the intellectual property for that method. We have the Nomadix service engine and we also have hardware platforms. We encourage people to license and not infringe.”

Asked what dollar amount Nomadix charges for a license, Short refused to talk specifics, but said that licenses are per-deployment and per-venue and depend on the number of users on the network.

Asked again whether there was a conflict of interest between asking for license revenues and trying to sell products, Short insisted, “we are not just a pure intellectual property company. We are encouraging people to use our software.”

He added, “we are not focused on going after people with a patent lawsuit. We want to promote the market. I cannot comment on specific incidents of infringement or what we’ve done about that.”

Asked about a potential negative reaction to the patent, Short said that he expected operators to embrace the technology. “Before we entered this market, people had to change their settings to get access. The intellectual property we’ve been able to develop goes beyond a simple redirect. It allows someone to be connected even if they’re set to connect through a corporate proxy that sits behind a firewall or to use a private DNS server.”

He added that it’s very convenient. “Otherwise someone on the road, such as in a hotel, would have to change their settings. Instead, this is like an IT admin in a box.”

He concluded that hotspots without a simple redirect are losing potential customers. “The unique aspects of connecting in the public access market are holding it back,” he said.

Getting connected in a nomadic world

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Short pointed out that when people take computers out of their homes and offices, and try to connect them to the Internet at hotels, airports, and coffee shops, problems arise that those people may not have faced before (see, for example, the experience of Gerry Blackwell in part 1 and part 2 of Wi-Fi Hotspots: Are They For Real?).

Nomadix software checks to see whether the user’s home page is available, and if it is not available, the software ensures that the user can still connect through a local login, instead of simply displaying a 404 “file not found” error message.

For users who are configured to obtain DNS from a protected corporate source that is unavailable to them when they leave the office, Nomadix software redirects their DNS lookup to local servers, as specified by the hotspot operator. “The standard way,” said Short, “was to tell each machine individually which DNS servers were okay.”

Some companies and individuals like static IP addresses. For corporations, static IPs make it easier to track traffic and can be used to prevent unauthorized access (although this is not foolproof). “We have a previous patent that allows the user to connect to a hotspot without reconfiguring their own device,” noted Short.

In every case, the configuration provided by the Nomadix software does not alter the configuration of the end user’s machine, ensuring that it will work perfectly when it is returned to the home or office.

Looking to the future, Short started to talk about roaming. He said the company is examining methods of allowing hotspots to authenticate people by using the RADIUS servers of ISPs. The hotspot operator would benefit from roaming, as would the ISP. “It eliminates the necessity of storing user information at the hotspot,” said Short. “The hotspot operator gets a log of usage but needs no account relationship with the users themselves.”

Of course security would be an issue, which is one reason why Nomadix’s wireless roaming product is not yet available. Short said that new protocols will go a long way towards solving this problem. “Protocols such as 802.1x and EAP allow a security association between the mobile end user and the ISP to be secure and mutually trusted. A hotspot operator won’t be able to get in the middle of that flow.”

He added that although the access point vendors are ready with products supporting new protocols, many of the clients remain out of date. New protocols cannot be used until both access points and clients are compatible with them.

The eventual goal is as simple as the company’s name. “These are the first steps in enabling truly nomadic computing, where you do not have to worry about how you get connected, a truly ubiquitous public access network.”

But it seems obvious that if it is to deploy roaming, and to connect to the RADIUS servers of the ISPs of the world, Nomadix will have to tread lightly with its new patent, and not anger ISPs to the point where they are reluctant to work with it.

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