Dayton, who founded EarthLink eight years ago, is working his everyman routine to promote Boingo, his new ISP for the Unstrung Era. Boingo sells Internet access via Wi-Fi, the short-range wireless technology that broadcasts 11-megabit-per-second broadband over radio waves. Conceived as a way for sysadmins and home networkers to eliminate pesky cables, Wi-Fi nodes have found their way into conference rooms and living rooms alike. Now they’re spreading beyond private spaces. Geek hobbyists are popping networks up on windowsills and fire escapes, pointing Wi-Fi antennas at adjacent parks, bars, and wherever else city dwellers might dig free bandwidth. Dayton is betting that businesspeople want to surf sans wires, too, especially while on the road, and that they’ll shell out $75 a month for the privilege.
But, as numerous failed entrepreneurs can attest, capitalizing on a snazzy new technology is trickier than it sounds. In Boingo’s case, bringing wireless Internet access to the masses raises a host of problems. For starters, there’s the infrastructure %u2014 or, more precisely, the lack thereof. If Boingo is going to sell access to a far-flung wireless network, it first needs a far-flung wireless network. That’s not as easy as scattering cellular transponders along the highway. Whereas a single cell switching station can cover an entire town, most Wi-Fi signals peter out after a few hundred feet. As a result, we’ll need tens of thousands of nodes nationwide before coverage can be considered even minimal. Wi-Fi’s first big commercial venture, MobileStar, went bankrupt while putting access points which can cost $4,000 each in 550 Starbucks. Deploying a network powerful enough to cover a good-size airport can run well over $500,000. And deep pockets aren’t enough. Before the buildout can happen, someone needs to convince the bureaucrats who operate the hotels and airports critical locations for Boingo’s target customers that a Wi-Fi network can be a revenue-generating magnet for business travelers.
WiFi is what the world’s emerging markets need to leapfrog their bandwidth infrastructure problems. In the developed markets, there are many alternatives for high-speed Internet access. But the emerging markets are where WiFi can become core to the network, and not just another access method.