Start-up advances public access wireless LAN prospects

In the past year, Sky Dayton, founder of EarthLink Inc., has been looking for what he calls "the next frontier of the Internet." Now he thinks he has found it in the development of what he says will be the first company to offer easy access and subscriptions to public access wireless LAN networks around the country.

Dayton, who serves as chairman of Atlanta-based EarthLink, last month launched Boingo Wireless Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif. He said the new company will serve as a single point of contact and service for the fragmented public access wireless LAN market, much as EarthLink replaced the fragmented Internet service provider model of five years ago with a nationwide footprint.

Dayton also said the mobile data networks of the future will be a combination of high-speed wireless LANs and medium-speed wide-area cellular networks. Cellular operator Sprint PCS Group has bought into this idea, making an undisclosed investment in Boingo.

Bill Blessing, senior vice president for business development at Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint PCS, said his company wants to offer "data to mobile users wherever they are, and in some places, that will be through wireless LANs." Blessing said Sprint PCS views its investment in Boingo as a chance to extend high-speed data services to users over Wi-Fi (802.11b) data networks and considers public access wireless LANs as a "great stimulant" to mobile data usage.

Blessing said Sprint PCS is also exploring the development of a dual-mode data card that would let users easily switch from Wi-Fi networks, which offer 10M bit/sec. of throughput in locations such as hotels and airports, to the company's cellular network, which will eventually offer 144M bit/sec. of throughput to mobile users.

Sprint PCS isn't the first cellular carrier to dip into the public access wireless LAN market. VoiceStream Wireless Corp. in Bellevue, Wash., last week was nearing completion of an agreement it submitted to a bankruptcy court to purchase Richardson, Texas-based MobileStar Network Corp.

A Blend of Services

Boingo doesn't own or operate any public access wireless LAN networks. Instead, Dayton said, it will serve as an amalgamator of services already offered by companies such as Wayport Inc. in Austin, Texas, which provides airport public access networks, or Surf and Sip Inc. in San Francisco, which offers Wi-Fi service for independent coffee shops.

Boingo intends to sign up other Wi-Fi public access operators to its service as they emerge, eventually establishing a nationwide footprint, Dayton said. He added that Boingo could serve as a stimulus for the nascent market by driving traffic and hence revenue to its partners.

Boingo offers users one-stop shopping for wireless LAN service through software that sniffs out public access networks, including the free Wi-Fi networks that have started to pop up in major cities.

Boingo's software handles all authentication on disparate public networks and features a built-in virtual private network client, a key requirement for corporate users. It eliminates the need to subscribe to myriad public access networks, with its single service and pricing model providing access to a growing number of service providers.

A beta version of Boingo's software is available as a free download at It's due for final release later this month.

Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md., called the founding of Boingo a "significant development" in the public access wireless LAN marketplace. The company could replace today's "hodgepodge of networks with a shaky financial structure" and offer the kind of truly national service needed to attract the interest and dollars of market professionals, said Reiter.

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