In New York City, it’s now harder to find a good cup of coffee than it is to stumble into a hotspot. From riverfront parks to office parks, coffee shops and hotel lobbies, overlapping signals blanket the city. Finding an ideal one, however—one that’s free, or powered by the provider you subscribe to, or where you can, in five minutes’ time, re-caffeinate, use a restroom and glance over your inbox—is a little more challenging. And if you’re in Idaho, not New York, you might really require some assistance in discovering that there are hotspots in Boise and McCall and Moscow—but not a flutter of a signal in Duluth. A good place to zero in on such information is the CNET site www.jiwire.com, where you can search for hotspots by city, state or zip code; and for the international set, there’s a list of 56,138 Wi-Fi locations dotting the globe from Hong Kong (which has 477) to St. Kitts (which has one).
So many cities have gone “hot” that they’re now too numerous to individually name; however, we thought you might appreciate a few other points of advice for staying connected on your travels—whether you’re commuting to work, out of the office for the day or criss-crossing the country from 30,000 feet.
“There are two companies in the world that have deployments of passenger Internet access on trains. There’s [us] and a company in Sweden. Other than that, there’s been a number of companies that have talked about it, but nobody that has a deployment running that you can go and ride on,” says Shawn Griffin, CEO of Ottawa-based PointShot Wireless, a provider of wireless solutions for “in-motion environments.” “We use a combination of satellite, cellular and Wi-Fi, and we’ll use WiMAX and other technologies as they become available,” says Griffin. “The passenger inside the train gets a typical hotspot experience where they open their notebook, go to their browser and are presented with a log-in page. After that, they’re connected to the Internet.”
PointShot currently has three rail deployments: a Montreal to Toronto route on VIA Rail Canada (Canada’s Amtrak equivalent); a Stockton to San Jose, Calif., route on the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE); and Amtrak’s intercity Capitol Corridor route, which runs 170 miles through eight Northern California counties.
The rail companies benefit from on-board Wi-Fi in that they can equip operators with devices running applications that can perform helpful time- and money-saving services such as printing e-tickets on-board, creating passenger manifests, retrieving maintenance information and tracking the train’s location and schedules. Plus, it creates rider loyalty—many riders will choose a particular train if they know they’re guaranteed Wi-Fi access. The benefit for riders, clearly, is being able to use their commute more productively. User levels, in terms of riders per car, varies from 5 to 40 percent, according to Griffin, and it’s on commuter (versus intercity) routes that PointShot sees the highest user penetration.
“We believe the minimum is a half hour in length, otherwise people aren’t going to pull out a laptop,” says Griffin. “Stockton to San Jose is two hours and 20 minutes, which is a very long commute, so riders tend to be very intense—they try to get their e-mails in or send them off before they get to work. Some companies are now willing to credit hours spent commuting as work hours because you’re actually connected into the corporate intranet, and you can now verify that you were actually working.”
PointShot recently partnered with Parsons, a planning, engineering and construction company with decades of experience in the rail industry, and together they plan to increase the number of trains offering Internet service. “The key ingredient for us is to find a service provider who gets the overall business model, and we have that with Parsons,” says Griffin. “So we expect a lot of announcements in the next six months about both extending and adding new rail operators in North America.”
While it may be some time before we learn to navigate the social issues surrounding cell phone use on airplanes, the technology aspect has at least been figured out. Qualcomm has developed a technology that will solve the problem of interference and eliminate any risk to the aircraft’s systems. Paul Guckian, Qualcomm’s senior director of technology, explains: “We had developed a picocell, which is a very small base station, originally for in-building coverage and subways, etc. But then the discussion of the aircraft environment came up a few years ago, so we took the picocell technology, made a few modifications, integrated it with an aircraft-to-ground communication system and were able to demonstrate the use of cell phones onboard aircraft.”
The problem with dialing from a plane is that the phone has to transmit at a very high power in order to reach a base station on the ground, and that high frequency could potentially disturb the aircraft’s communication system as well as disturb ground networks. With a picocell in the cabin, however, cell phones could transmit directly to it at very low levels, and the signal would then go to another
aircraft-to-ground link. In the demo Qualcomm ran with American Airlines, Guckian explains, “That was a Globalstar satellite communications link, so it went over satellite and then down to the ground networks. And once it was on the ground it was treated like a normal cell phone and routed to its destination.”
Qualcomm is part of Special Committee 202, which was created at the request of the Federal Aviation Administration to study the use of cell phones and other wireless devices on aircraft. Guckian says the committee is targeted to finish its work soon. “I think that what you may see within the year—well, late this year or early 2006—is some pilot tests where there’ll be a specific airline that may well offer this service on a very limited basis just to test the market and [show] that it’s achievable. That you can take a particular aircraft, do all the interference testing, install the equipment and then the airline will operate it and get feedback from its passengers as to the value of that service.”
Qualcomm is also excited about the possibilities for its EV-DO technology, which enables anyone with a wireless PC Card to access a high-speed wireless connection wherever they have a cellular connection. EV-DO is being rolled out through Verizon under the name BroadbandAccess and is currently available in more than 30 cities and 26 airports, with the numbers steadily climbing. BroadbandAccess also creates new options for in-flight wireless access. “There are several companies looking at Broadband air-to-ground connections,” says Guckian. “If they’re successful, then this will allow picocell networks in the cabin to provide voice and broadband data services to passengers using their own mobile phone and data-enabled devices, e.g., PDAs, laptops, etc.”
In Q3 of this year, RaySat, a developer of mobile video receiving systems, is set to introduce the SpeedRay 3000, a roof-mounted antenna that features a built-in Wi-Fi card for two-way Internet connectivity. Unlike enterprise solutions that create in-vehicle hotspots through a 3G connection, the Speed Ray 3000 relies on a satellite antenna, so it remains effective in remote areas where cellular, and even landline, connections are unavailable. Inside a 5-inch-high impact-resistant case, a phased-array antenna rotates constantly, tracking and maintaining the satellite signal; the Wi-Fi transceiver supports 802.11b and g standards.
“It takes about 30 seconds to get hooked up once you boot-up your laptop or PDA, and the signal creates a hotspot of about 100 feet, so you can also sit outside the vehicle and work,” says Lynette Henley, RaySat director of marketing. “This is a breakthrough in mobile wireless Internet connectivity, and we’re very excited to offer it.” Testing has shown typical download speeds of 400 Kbps and uploads of 128 Kbps when shared among users in the vehicle.
The hardware is priced at $3,500 and requires installation, and, as of press time, RaySat had yet to name an Internet service provider partner, leaving pricing packages (whether monthly, daily or by the minute) to be determined. RaySat expects to see consumer interest from minivan and SUV owners, who can use the signal to access digital television, as well as enterprise interest from mobile professionals and industries such as emergency response and long-haul trucking.