Public Wireless -- Destined to be Free

Editor and columnist Chris Nerney says Boston's Logan Airport is swimming against the tide in trying to force Continental Airlines to stop offering free Wi-Fi access in its frequent flyer lounge.
I had to travel to New York City for Jupitermedia's Digital Rights Management Strategies Conference last week, and decided to take an Amtrak train from my home near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., rather than fly out of Albany. When I was buying tickets at the train station the day before my departure, I asked a gentleman from Amtrak if they had Internet access in the station. He assured me they did.

Which indeed was true. However, it came in the form of an Internet kiosk that promised users with credit cards "Net access for 20 cents a minute." All well and good, but I was thinking more in terms of wireless access so I could use my laptop, which contained critical data regarding the opening of the thoroughbred racing season at Saratoga.

To me, an Internet kiosk in a public place seems so archaic. It might as well be a telephone booth or a game of Pong. (P.R. reps of Internet kiosk vendors, begin your onslaught.) And the germs!

Everything is wireless these days because so many people -- specifically, traveling business professionals and shiftless teenagers -- desire and need portable access.

I believe the time will come when wireless access in all public places will be like air: ubiquitous and free. That's why I think Boston's Logan Airport is swimming against the tide of technological destiny.

According to this story in the New York Times, Logan Airport officials are trying to force Continental Airlines to stop offering free Wi-Fi access in Continental's frequent flyer lounge.

Airport officials have claimed in nasty letters to Continental that the free Wi-Fi poses an "unacceptable risk" to communications operations by Massachusetts state police and the federal Transportation Security Administration, the Times story says. Given that many airlines now allow wireless access during flights, this strikes me as somewhat dubious.

It's pretty clear that the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, is more concerned about the risk Continental's free wireless service poses to the airport's $7.95-a-day pay wireless service. According to the Times, Massport's contract with commercial access provider Advanced Wireless Group gives it up to 20 percent of annual gross revenues. Who knows what that amount is, but if it's the $1 million cited in the Boston Globe a couple of years back, that translates into $200,000 or so annually for Massport. From a cost/benefit perspective, that's certainly worth a few threatening letters.

Continental has appealed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to intervene, pointing to a nine-year-old law that basically requires local authorities to mind their own business in such matters.

And that's really all Massport is doing -- minding its business. Nonetheless, it's betting on a model that will evolve into obsolescence, and probably sooner than later. Public wireless wants to be free, and I doubt anything can stop it... with the possible exception of lawyers.

The FCC should rule on Continental's request in the late summer or early fall. It's taking comments from the public until Aug. 29. Let the commissioners know you want your public wireless free.






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