WiFi startup stops

Cometa, a startup national WiFi hotspot firm, has shut down. Cometa was bankrolled by Intel, AT&T, and IBM, and planned to create 20,000 hotspots nationwide and wholesale them to other companies who would actually provide the end user service.

It was a good plan, but apparently poorly executed. No doubt the company was stuffed with execs from Intel, AT&T, and IBM, who apparently acted arrogantly and spent too much money too soon.

The problem with all of the firms planning national networks is twofold. First, WiFi will not take off, really take off, until there are widespread roaming agreements in place. Right now, if I'm at O'Hare in Chicago and want to check my mail via WiFi, I probably have to spend $10 for 15 minutes of access. Two hours later, in Omaha, some other company will want $10 for another 15 minutes. Even dumber, T-Mobile thinks I'll happily pay yet another $10 two days later as I pass back through o'Hare.

That's the state of WiFi right now. National roaming agreements, just the way cellphones can roam, where you pay a fixed monthly subscription, is the only thing that makes sense. Why are so many firms in the market despite the lack of roaming? Because WiFi is in a growth phase; for every customer who stops paying T-Mobile $10/day, two new ones pop up. It's exactly like the early days of dial-up modem access. But it won't last. Cometa is the first of many firms that will go out of business after wasting a lot of investor funds.

But I said there were two problems. The second is local, rather than national. Communities need ubiquitous WiFi to make it really useful, and just putting hotspots in hotels and McDonald's is not enough. Rural communities are especially unlikely to get much attention from the big national firms. The sensible approach is for communities to get involved in identifying appropriate antenna locations, mapping out a hotspot grid so that everyone in the community can get service, and in that fashion creating the incentives that will attract local and regional wireless providers to come into the market and sell services.