Wireless Net startup plots 30K-ish UK hot spots in 2003
Kewney gets the scoop
Next Monday, a thunderbolt will hit the British wireless Internet world, as Inspired Broadcast launches a "pubs and clubs" chain of WiFi hotspots in three thousand different locations, with the possibility of seeing this rise to 30,000 locations before the end of the year.
The network grew out of the gaming machine business, with Inspired making most of its money today out of pay-to-play games on mobile phones.
But its wireless expertise took it into the orbit of Leisure Link, which operates gambling and video games machines in pubs and sports centres and social clubs. And the two have now combined, to produce what will easily be the UK's largest network of wireless Internet access points.
To the customer, these access points will almost certainly look like BT OpenZone, or Megabeam, or other big, commercial operations - and if you have an OpenZone account, you should be able to connect to these hotspots exactly as normal.
But Inspired may have other ways of making money out of its network, executives hinted today.
"Charging model will be revealed next Monday" promised CEO, Luke Alvarez, founder of Inspired. "There's a variety of different ones. Pay through the slot is one option; there's also going to be a Wireless ISP (WISP); and one model where you'll subscribe to an existing ISP and have wireless access through our WiFi cloud."
He said that his ambition is: "To be an open backbone, such that any number of operators - WISPS - can use our locations."
The scale of the operation will amaze forecasters.
"We have 3,000 DSL connected machines today, in these locations. We're putting antennas in all of them. We'll be rolling out the whole network in the next few months; which means we should have 3,000 lines by summer, and will be biggest backbone in Europe. And ultimately, we already have 30,000 locations signed up as customers of our parent company, Leisure Link - that's 60% of the 'managed' pubs in the UK, which probably means 20% of the total number of licensed premises."
The original plan was simply to provide new games by high-speed download, for players in these pubs and clubs. Inspired had already mastered the art of downloading games into mobile phones, and Leisure Link wanted more games - more variety - in its outlets.
"We put DSL into these machines, and that provides a pay-to-play model which we know is a revenue generator," said Alvarez. "What Sky TV does for the sofa, we do for the betting shop."
To provide these online machines, Inspired has signed a deal which it is calling "the largest DSL broadband order that BT has had; 21,000 lines over 3 years." Leisure Link has 90,000 machines in 30,000 pubs and other spaces - betting shops. "Mostly, they are unconnected machines, and we're connecting them."
And the cheapest way to connect three machines in one site, is with wireless.
Intriguingly, Alvarez held out the possibility that he would not see all these sites as high-fee collectors. There will be the opportunity to buy WiFi access by putting coins in a slot, yes; and that will be relatively expensive, he conceded. "But we expect to be the low-cost providers in this space; it wouldn't be viable for competitors who have to do it all from scratch, to justify the initial investment which we've already made."
His colleague, George Polk, said that the network was very secure indeed. "There's not going to be any risk that people can hack into the games machines from the ISP side," he said. "We stand to lose a very great deal of money if that isn't secure, and it will be secure."
The company's web site will be inactive until Friday, and will go public on Monday.