Thursday, October 28, 2021

Public Wireless — Destined to be Free

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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