Where to look for better WiFi deals

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by Daniel Dern -- What many people don't know is that there are ways to access hotspots more affordably.

First, many of the wired and wireless broadband carriers are offering free use of selected WiFi hotspots.

AT&T, for example, is bundling its "AT&T WiFi Basic" service for free to qualifying wired and wireless broadband customers; Verizon is bundling in access (www.verizon.net/hotspots, looks like around 15,000 hotspots around the U.S.) for its higher-speed FIOS and DSL users.

AT&T Wireless is particularly motivated to get its customers to use hotspots for data activity, since 3G data traffic from iPhones has been growing significantly; the more traffic AT&T can divert to WiFi, the less the strain on their 3G network.

Testing access aggregators

I've taken both Boingo and iPass out for brief "test rides" (using press accounts provided by the organizations), using a Lenovo S12 IdeaPad netbook running XP. Both companies' clients installed simply and easily.

Boingo, for WiFi
I used Boingo to connect to WiFi at two local StarBucks. The Boingo WiFI client found the hotspot and automatically popped up a "found, want to connect" box. It worked fine, no complaints or criticisms.

iPass: 3G and WiFi

The Sierra Wireless USB adapter provided by iPass includes a USB cable and a "clip stand" that lets me park the adapter at the top of my notebook display, to keep it out of the way and, I presume, help improve reception.

iPass includes Sierra's "Watcher" application, which detects service, indicates whether it's 1X or EVDO (basically, "older slower service" or "current, fast," toggles "connect/disconnect" requests, and shows connection status including speed.

In my home office and on parts of the Amtrak regional train ride from Boston to New York, I saw speeds of only 115kbps, reminiscent of dial-up. But elsewhere on the Amtrak New York/Boston run, iPass' Watcher app claimed 4.8MB down and around half a meg up -- more than enough, for example, to watch a few YouTube videos. Similarly, I had no trouble using iPass' 3G in and around Manhattan, including in the lower level of a New York Library building (which also had free WiFI).

However, even these bundles may not include access to hotspots where you will be -- or you may be with a different carrier or on a plan that doesn't include hotspot access.

Fortunately, there's yet one more option for affordable hotspot access, for consumers/single-users, SMBs and enterprises. (See sidebar: Testing Aggregated Access).

Many hotspots are likely to be available through multiple carriers and aggregators. "The carriers typically have between 85,000 and 110,000 hotspots," notes Kathryn Weldon. Principal Analyst, Enterprise Mobility, at Current Analysis. "This isn't surprising, since all the carriers are using the same partners."

Boingo - WiFI Aggregated Affordably

Boingo Wireless, Inc. aggregates and provides access to WiFI hot spots (see http://boingo.jiwire.com), including from AT&T, Wayport, iBahn, T-Mobile, BT Openzone, Orange France, Livedoor, Singtel, Telmex, Pronto, HubTelecom, Vex, Attingo, Bell Mobility, Net Near U, StayOnline, and Kubi Wireless.

As of September 2009, Boingo access includes "100,000+ hotspots around the world... more than 500+ airports, 20,000+ hotels, and 25,000+ cafes and restaurants around the world, including more than 14,000+ McDonald's restaurants."

Boingo's current single-user plans/prices are Boingo Unlimited (Americas) $9.95/month and Boingo Global (worldwide) $59.95/month -- Boingo's notebook software runs Windows XP and Vista, and (some) Macs -- and Boingo Mobile (for smartphones, including iPhone/iPod Touch, Nokia S60, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry, for U.S. and 70+ other countries), $7.95/month, plus some "As You Go" day rates. Additionally, Boingo offers Boingo Unlimited Group for consolidated billing, and Enterprise Edition plans, generally through partners.

If you've already got 3G service, or don't want it, Boingo is a compelling option. Given current hotspot prices, a Boingo account will pay for itself if you need to buy access even one to two times a month.

Unlike 3G usage, which is keyed to the device or adapter, Boingo use is per-user, not tied to a specific laptop. (Boingo is looking into an account and pricing by device -- if, for example, you're packing an iPod Touch and a netbook.)

Most Boingo partner networks have a 'roaming' login link -- a Universal Access Method, UAM -- so in case you're on a machine that doesn't have the Boingo client installed, you should be able to login via the web page.

iPass, For When You Also Want 3G And/Or Value-Added Services

iPass Inc., which Internet veterans may remember from the mid-90s as a dial-up aggregator, is aimed more at SMBs and enterprises -- particularly global ones. The company says its user base includes "3,500 enterprise and 400 Global 2000 firms." (iPass does offer single-user plans, through some of its resellers.

iPass aggregates/resells not only 3G and WiFi access, but also wired-Ethernet and also dial-up (which some, although fewer each year, still use, according to iPass).

iPass currently offers access to around 140,000 hotspots worldwide, including about 30,000 in the United States, and 60,000 in Europe. This includes hotspots associated with AT&T and T-Mobile, and at locations like StarBucks, McDonald's and Barnes & Noble, plus at airports, hotels, transit stations; and trains.

By using iPass, "We've reduced or eliminated the use of day pass access," reports Hay Group's Little. "The biggest issue was eliminating or reducing WiFi costs in hotels."

For anyone debating between iPass and Boingo, hotspot locations aren't likely to drive the decision. According to a Boingo spokesperson, "There isn't a very big difference between Boingo and iPass in the U.S. regarding hotspot coverage. There are more international examples -- Bell Canada, Telefonica, etc., where Boingo has roaming rights and iPass doesn't."

The big differentiators are iPass's additional networks, and IT/value-added services. iPass also offers 3G services in nine countries including the United States, plus wired-Ethernet, dial-up and other access. Additionally, iPass includes access to 2,500 Ethernet-accessed hotels, and around 24,000 dial access numbers across 165 countries.

For Americas-only travellers seeking only WiFi, Boingo is less expensive. But for a fleet of international users, iPass's billed-only-in-months-accessed approach -- plus access to 3G and other networks in the same fee -- may shift decision points.

"This gives the IT manager the freedom to deploy the software to everyone, you only get charged when you use the software and/or the network, and network use is flat rate, no worry about overrun charges," says Piero DePaoli, Senior Director, Global Product Marketing, iPass Inc. "Typically, in a large organization, with 1,000 people, we might see 250 people use it per month, some different users from month to month."

(iPass will charge a nominal fee of somewhere between $1-5 per month if you use its software to access a non-iPass network, e.g. your company or home WiFi.)

Beyond controlling, reducing remote access costs

Access to international hotspots is a big selling point. The high costs of international roaming for voice and data have come as big surprises to many users; WiFi access can save hundreds, even thousands of dollars per user. Even for users already committed to WiFi, given international hot spot rates of around twenty dollars a day, an iPass or Boingo account means savings even for just a few accesses. Using fixed-rate WiFi instead of international roaming rates for 3G and the savings are likely be even more substantial.

For companies already using or willing to adopt VoIP, there's further spending-throttlers: using VoIP instead of cell phones. If you've tried researching "how do I use a cell phone in other countries," you've probably discovered it's an aggravating mix of expensive and complicated. VoIPing, where an option, can bypass much of this.

"They all use the same WiFi partners, so look at what they do on the client, administrative, security and other services (e.g. backup and restore) and whether they support the devices/environments you're using," says Current Analysis' Weldon. "So it's 'which will integrate with my authentication and security environment.'"

iPass' appeal isn't just access aggregation and cost savings; the company iPass also offers authentication, VPN and other services, including integration with Cisco, Checkpoint, Microsoft, Juniper and other VPN providers, "so getting onto the corporate VPN is simple and easy, it looks like a single login," says iPass's DePaoli. iPass resellers offer additional features, such as the NetMotion Wireless' Mobile VPN through iRoam Mobile Solutions, which can maintain a persistent connection when a network connection goes down.

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This tip was adapted from 'Paying too much for WiFi, 3G? You have options' by Daniel Dern.

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