War-chalking: the threat to cellular phones gets hyped further.

by Guy Kewney | posted on 04 July 2002

The explosion of "war-chalking" - indicating where free public wireless Internet access can be found - has finally woken up the world's commentators to the threat to 3G phones. But the cellular world is probably one jump ahead ...

Guy Kewney

It looks as if at least some mobile phone operators are seeing the future more clearly than the industry observers.

For some time, the idea of using public wireless hot-spots has struck the mainstream press as simply a geeky amusement. Then war-chalking arrived; and suddenly, it has dawned on industry observers: "It's cheaper to deploy access points using volunteers, than to install phone masts using expensive engineers."

But though there are excellent examples of the penny dropping in mainstream media, articles like this one in Business Week are probably behind the times.

The BW article points out: "The grassroots movement for community wireless broadband was growing long before warchalking. Nonprofit groups, such as NYC Wireless and Personal Telco in Portland, Ore., have been rallying volunteers to set up free networks in major U.S. metropolitan cities for more than a year. NYC Wireless already has set up 100 free wireless spots in New York -- 50 in Manhattan alone. Its latest, an open network in that borough's Bryant Park, was unveiled on June 25."

The article, by writer Jane Black, quotes NYC Wireless spokesperson Anthony Townsend: "At this rate, the group will cover the entire island with free high-speed signals within 18 months. Our progress shows that well-capitalized companies spending billions of dollars isn't the only way to get us to 3G. Free wireless networks cover large parts of major cities with faster service than is offered by traditional players."

True enough: but this message has penetrated the offices of the mobile phone operators - or at least, some of them.

At Microsoft Tech-Ed in Barcelona, the subject of mobile data is being covered in some depth. But paradox: the subject of wireless technology is almost not mentioned, at all. And Microsoft evangelists agree: this is because they are talking to all the operators about their WiFi hot-spot plans and public access plans through 802.11 technology.

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