My first stop on the hotspot road trip brings me to Chicago, where it’s easier to find a hotspot than a parking space. After circling the blocks around Millennium Park looking for street parking (old city habits die hard), I finally give up and pull into a garage.
Millennium Park strikes me as an appropriate first stop. With other public parks like Jackson Square in New Orleans and Washington Square in New York City going wireless, wouldn’t it make sense for a park commemorating the millennium to be wireless as well? Intended to be unveiled in the year 2000, the project missed its mark by four years, opening this past July. Nevertheless, it covers up what used to be an unsightly swath of railroad track and parking lots with open space, performance areas, cutting-edge sculptures, and provocative architecture.
Designed by a dream team of designers and architects, including Frank Gehry, Anish Kapoor, and Jaume Plensa, the park opened to raves, but when talking to park goers, reactions run the gamut from “it’s the coolest park I’ve ever seen” to “it’s one big boondoggle,” although the positives tend to outweigh the negative.
On this warm late day, I pull out my Kensignton WiFi Finder to investigate just how “millennial” this park really is. I’ve had mixed results with the WiFi Finder in the past, but I figure a sweep couldn’t hurt.
I wander past the Cloud Gate, a bean-shaped 33-foot-high stainless-steel sculpture, over to the Crown Fountain, with its five-story high video monitors showing gigantic faces that spit out streams of water, and on to the Gehry-designed pavilion. Nothing. Not a single blip on the WiFi Finder.
How millennial can a park be without being wireless?
Make no mistake, though, Chicago is a wireless city. A year ago, I came to Chicago and first began exploring it hotspot offerings. My favorite back then was a hole-in-the-wall Mediterranean place, Cafe DaDa. It had all of five tables, yet it offered a free hotspot. The problem with DaDa was it seemed to open and close at random. You could count on six or seven hours a day, but you never knew which ones, and they were rarely consecutive. Fortunately, DaDa never turned off its AP, and I could sit across the street at the Olive Tree Cafi and enjoy an only slightly degraded signal.
This year, I head back to DaDa and am disappointed to find the space now occupied by a Korean nail salon. So, I head on to Lincoln Park and Panera Bread, a small chain that offers free hotspots at many locations. Being in a city like Chicago, I leave the Starbucks and Borders Books for later in the trip, instead targeting the smaller, free venues. At Panera, I’m surprised to see that they have abandoned their free paradigm, instead offering T-Mobile service — until I notice that my laptop has actually associated with the Starbucks across the street.
After closing that connection, I pull up the stronger Panera signal and log on. That gets me thinking, though: a hotspot is an amenity for a business’ clientele, especially if the hotspot is free, but wireless signals aren’t confined within the walls of a business. In the enterprise WLAN world, companies like Newbury Networks are addressing this very problem with “location-based security” products. Probably overkill for the hotspot space today, but when these networks get populated, most businesses will balk at subsidizing freeloaders next door.
I sign back off at Panera and go next door to Starbucks. Sure enough, I can get a free signal from Panera, which, if I didn’t have a T-Mobile Hotspot pass, would allow me to skip paying for a day pass.
The next day, I find myself north of town, in the Ravenswood neighborhood at a coffee house called the Perfect Cup. At a table next to me, a guy mutters under his breath, complaining about the poor signal he is getting for his Internet connection. The Perfect Cup has a Boingo Wireless hotspot, and my signal is strong and fast. [After this story was printed, we got a note from HotPoint Wireless pointing out that HotPoint is the provider for the Perfect Cup’s hotspot service, though Boingo user can roam at HotPoint venues. -Ed.]
Then I notice the cellular data card jutting from the laptop. I introduce myself and ask if he’s considered hotspots.
“I’ve thought about it,” he says, “but my band tours all over the country. We need coverage wherever we go.” This is Jeff Miller, the lead guitarist for the band New Monsoon, and he has hit on what is the logical next step for service providers: bundled Wi-Fi and cellular data plans. If you make a living on the road, you’re looking for the broad coverage of cellular networks, yet you’d like to be able to shift to a higher speed connection when it’s available — all without signing up for ten million different plans.
I get on the phone to a T-Mobile spokesperson. “That’s exactly what we’re beginning to do,” says David Henderson, a public relations representative for T-Mobile. “Wi-Fi is not a stand-alone business for T-Mobile, but rather a complement to our nationwide wireless voice (GSM) and (GPRS) data service. By combining these networks, T-Mobile offers customers coverage where they want it, as well as speed when they need it.”
The need for WLAN-WAN roaming will become more acute as multimode handsets hit the street. Already unveiled by the likes of HP, Nokia, Motorola, and NEC, multimode mobile phones, or smart phone, enable two things: the ability to receive data services over both cellular data networks and WLANs and the ability to hand-off voice calls from mobile voice networks to WLANs. While enterprise-grade WLANs are already looking ahead to VoWLAN deployments, will this work in hotspots? Today, I’m skeptical.
WLANs were designed to be data-only networks, but as hotspots continue to spread, it is the capability of shifting from network to network that could drive higher hotspot subscriber rates — especially if this means conserving peak airtime minutes. Future applications and bundling by service providers will also help, but for the time being, hotspots are data-first networks, no matter how many dual-mode handsets are on the street.