Find Hotspots Via SMS
By Carlo Longino, Fri Sep 17 21:00:00 GMT 2004

A UK company has launched an SMS service to guide people to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot. The only question about it is why didn't anybody do this before?

Total Hotspots has launched the service, where people send an SMS with the word "hotspot" to a short code, which then responds with the nearest hotspots based on the location of the base station to which the user's phone is connected. It helps get over a significant problem with using public Wi-Fi access: hotspots can be hard to find, especially in an unfamiliar area, and directories are all online -- requiring research ahead of time.

Just as some are rehashing ideas that Wi-Fi will do a number on 3G data, they're saying a potential way for cellular operators to compete is to integrate 3G and Wi-Fi networks, as T-Mobile is doing. But that integration is meaningless unless it's easy for customers to use both networks. While higher-level issues like a unified interface need to be resolved, a major frustration for users can simply be finding a place to connect.

Linkups with brands with ubiquitous locations, like Starbucks or McDonald's, are one way to make it easier for users to find hotspots, but even finding one of those can be difficult at times. It's hard to understand why somebody like T-Mobile hasn't started this type of service before, given the ease with which a mobile carrier that owns a hotspot network could implement it. Although Total Hotspots charges a hefty one pound per message, it could steer users away from T-Mobile's hotspots, or any other provider's, for that matter.

If a user is in a new place, they'll want to choose a hotspot provided by someone with which they have an existing relationship -- whether that be a subscription, or just positive previous experiences. So if that user is looking for a T-Mobile hotspot, they can ping T-Mo's service to find the nearest location. But if they ping a third-party directory that features independent hotspots and ones from other networks, there's a significant risk they'll find another provider to use, whether it be simply because it's closer, their preferred provider's results get pushed far enough down the list that the user never sees them, or they're made aware of another hotspot in a preferable location.

Swisscom already runs a similar service for hotspots in its home market, and many carriers let users pay for access via premium SMS. But adding an SMS interface to their directory listings is a simple service that could prove very valuable in directing Wi-Fi users to their networks -- and potentially to their integrated Wi-Fi/mobile data plans.