Will You Buy WiFi?


    John Stanton of T-Mobile has partnered with Starbucks and surfs the net wirelessly in one of the chain's cafes in Bellevue, Wash.

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    Then came the habit of warchalking — which began in London and spread around the globe — in which wardrivers would mark the presence of free networks with a strange hieroglyph — parentheses in reverse order — in chalk on the sidewalk for all to see. "The beauty of Wi-Fi is that it is so decentralized," says Anthony Townsend, an N.Y.U. professor who runs a network of 141 free access points called NYCwireless. Even Brilliant keeps his home Wi-Fi network open, and is happy for his Mill Valley, Calif., neighbors to use it.

    If Cometa was going to work, Brilliant knew, it had to think big. Despite the expense, it had to build 20,000 access points across America. These access points have to be as secure as Fort Knox and support Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs (think of a VPN as a solid, encrypted tunnel of data in the middle of any signal). Free Wi-Fi rapidly loses its appeal when you realize those home users could potentially take a peek at the data on your laptop as part of the bargain.

    Brilliant also insisted that Cometa had to make deals with corporations, not individual road warriors. "We need to sign them up 50,000 at a time," he says. If consumers use the service, it will be through potential partners like AOL Time Warner (parent of TIME) or EarthLink. Cometa would still be in charge of the infrastructure, but the Cometa brand would be invisible to Joe Public. Software developers would work directly with the providers to produce different flavors of Cometa.

    Cometa recently inked a cunningly symbiotic deal to test Wi-Fi in 10 McDonald's outlets in Manhattan. If the test works out, Mickey D's 30,000 U.S. locations will provide the kind of footprint in the heartland that Cometa needs. McDonald's is interested not only in better serving road-warrior diners but also in the savings to be had from a network where everything down to the milkshake machine's maintenance schedule can be accessed at a moment's notice. The company has Wi-Fi in Australian, Japanese, Swedish and Taiwanese restaurants.

    Brilliant's big thinking isn't enough to convince some skeptics. Seybold says it would take 72 people connecting to an access point every day for three years to recoup the cost of constructing it. And if each access point covers only a 300-ft. radius, that's going to leave a lot of urban America outside the Cometa canopy.

    But time and technology are on Brilliant's side. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — those geeks who came up with the name 802.11--tentatively announced the creation of a new Wi-Fi standard earlier this year. It's called 802.16a, or more memorably, Wi-Max. It can comfortably cover a square mile, meaning it would take only 49 transmitters to blanket San Francisco. As Brilliant says with a grin, "Now it gets interesting." If you can cover entire cities with wireless Internet access, you suddenly have a very cheap alternative to cellular networks. But even Wi-Max won't kill 3G, which works much better when you're driving at high speed.

    Brilliant will stick around to see the outcome, even now that Weis has taken over the CEO role. "I'm on the board of directors," Brilliant says. "They can't get rid of me." After all, there's still one more mountain to climb.

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