Community Wi-Fi Stays Ahead of Commercial Efforts
By Carlo Longino, Mon May 17 23:00:00 GMT 2004

In addition to free access, community Wi-Fi groups are offering applications and features commercial providers would never dream of.

NYCwireless, the New York community Wi-Fi group, is sponsoring a "Community Application Prototype Contest" along with NYC's Downtown Alliance. The contest is looking for prototype applications that "use wireless technology to tie together the Lower Manhattan community" -- something you're not likely to see at your local Starbucks hotspot.

Some community features are already available on the 8 Lower Manhattan hotspots involved in the contest, through the spots' login portal, including links to local events, as well as an interactive map to locate restaurants, shops and other businesses near their hotspots. The Austin Wireless City Project also offers community features like chat and IM through the free Less Networks server software it uses at its hotspots. It's also working on new features like a hotspot list that will show how many users are logged on at a particular location and other information, so if a user is looking for someplace quiet to work, or someplace with a lot of activity, they can better find it.

These applications come out because groups like NYCwireless and AWCP have a completely different perspective than commercial providers. They've taken making money -- commercial hotspots' main concern -- out of the equation, allowing them to focus on other priorities. Community building doesn't show up on to commercial providers' radar, because they don't see a way to make money from it.

T-Mobile would never offer a hotspot list because they'd be afraid of the implications of being able to view how many (or really how few) people are on their hotspots at a given time. But a community group, unburdened by financial goals, sees the upside for users in offering such an application.

It will be cool to see what comes out of the NYC contest. It should be something good, if other things like Dodgeball and PacManhattan are anything to go by. But whatever it is, it will deepen the gap between commercial and community providers. Community groups already win on price with free hotspots, and they're already offering users something above and beyond simple access. You can do more for free, or pay to do less. Which sounds like the more viable business model?