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NYT writer challenges Reg hack to hobby-horse race

Remember that happy Wi-Fi user?

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Letter Regular readers may recall Andrew Orlowski's reaction to a New York Times article concerning the wonderful news that someone out there liked Wi-Fi.

The NYT ran a heartwarming story about a man who happily used Wi-Fi to access his email during his daily commute. No problem there, except that the man was tied rather more closely to the providers of the services he used than the writer let on. So began Andrew's dismantling of the article.

The writer of that NYT piece had a few points he wanted to make, so we thought, why the hell not? Over to you, Glenn:

You have to love Andrew Orlowski’s style. I do. In this brief piece commenting on my New York Times article about commuter Internet access - in which Wi-Fi isn’t the point, just a mechanism - he manages to climb on his hobbyhorse about for-fee Wi-Fi hotspots failing. Andrew, you and I can race hobbyhorses: I say Wi-Fi will spread and you say - wait, you agree!

The commercial proposition for hotspots remains in my mind as perilous as it is in Orlowski’s; I’m more optimistic that bundling with cell voice and cell data plans will be the ultimate way in which pay-for-use Wi-Fi will persist. T-Mobile’s pricing, for instance, is pretty reasonable and I know a number of people who have T-Mobile voice, GPRS data, and Wi-Fi because it’s simple and ubiquitous - it’s the cheapest solution to a problem of connectivity.

It’s possible, and many folks including me admit this, that for-fee Wi-Fi won’t actually be a long-term strategy if bundling doesn’t succeed. Wi-Fi could be available for free as a necessary amenity at coffeeshops and hotels. (I continue to believe, too, that airports and conference centers will charge for Wi-Fi even if no one uses it because that’s how those institutions think about amenities.)

That’s a little beside the point, though, because my article was focusing on whether commuter Internet access was viable and feasible. All of the current experiments use Wi-Fi as a means to distribute access, but none of the experiments are charging for service. It’s not a question of "Will commuters pay?" yet, but rather "Are commuters even interested?" If they are, pricing will be figured out. Using Wi-Fi on a boat that you’re on for an hour or 90 minutes a day is an entirely different matter than a traveler who might need to use hundreds of different hotspots, and has the choice to pick free ones. Commuters aren’t road warriors: they’re captives to convenience and conveyence.

(I like that phrase: perhaps I have a career in tabloids, too.)

More seriously, Orlowski accuses me indirectly of drinking Intel’s blue soup, as it were, because I quote an Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) rider who works for Intel. Orlowski writes:

The Times discloses that the name of this Wi-Fi user was provided by the trial operator, PointShot. It doesn’t mention that PointShot’s experiment is funded by Intel, who we learn in the article is also Dickson’s employer. Intel’s capital fund has helped to sponsor a number of Wi-Fi trials in North America and Canada.

I had looked into this before quoting Terry Dickman - Andrew, check that typewriter, his name’s not Dickson - to ensure that he had no ties to ACE or PointShot. I had also made sure via ACE and PointShot that I knew who was funding what. University of Phoenix is paying for the service on ACE, not Intel. Further, PointShot’s rounds of private investment are publicly available through press releases, and Intel Capital is not an investor.

Intel did fund a marketing study in Canada with PointShot on the VIA railway line to determine passenger attitudes about having Internet access en route. The VIA line is experimenting with this offering between Toronto and Montreal.

The CEO and president of PointShot, Shawn Griffin, read Orlowski’s article as well and confirmed via email all of the statements made above. PointShot has no ongoing or financial relationship with Intel or Intel Capital beyond that one survey.

Because commuter Internet access is so new and so sporadic, PointShot offered customers to talk with. I asked PointShot and the individuals I spoke with to confirm that they had no connection with ACE or PointShot and were not family or friends of people involved with either group.

Mr. Dickman was a wonderful person to interview, because having Internet access on his train has given him back hours of his day.

We disclosed this in the story to make sure that readers knew from whence we obtained this perfect user. He sounds perfect because he’s self selected: he liked the service so much that he contacted PointShot and then agreed to be interviewed. A spokesperson for ACE told me that they have 45 to 60 users on an average day out of about 1,500 weekday riders. Virtually all of these people are commuters.

Another error is that Orlowski states Intel Capital has sponsored Wi-Fi trials. In fact, Intel Capital has invested in companies that produce wireless LAN switches, cellular/Wi-Fi technology, and run hotspot networks like STSN or provide back-end technology to hotspot networks.

Intel itself put massive co-marketing dollars into promoting Centrino’s Wi-Fi service, which allowed hotspot networks to advertise like crazy in the last year. I am unaware of Intel Capital specifically funding experiments like PointShot’s ACE run, the ferry system, or even hotspot networks qua experiments (as opposed to commercial deployments that parallel existing networks).

Glenn Fleishmann, Wi-Fi Networking News

Buckle up kids, those hobby-horses are probably gonna be out racing for a while...®

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