MCI Goes Deep With Wi-Fi

Company to increase hot-spot coverage; eye on voice support in future apps.

MCI Inc. is stepping up its Wi-Fi access by nearly doubling its hot-spot coverage and exploring new applications that will cater to corporate customers.

The Ashburn, Va., carrier in the next few months will expand its Wi-Fi footprint from 6,200 to some 11,000 hot spots worldwide, through a deal with Boingo Wireless Inc., of Santa Monica, Calif., officials said. This will include the addition of 3,400 hot-spot locations in the United States by early May.

While they declined to divulge where those spots will be, officials said the company will be increasing its focus on cafes and public business centers rather than on hotels and airports—the idea being that there are business customers who will need wireless access for off-site excursions, even if theyre not flying somewhere.

"Were getting a lot more of the windshield warrior-type venues," said Kevin Gatesman, senior manager of emerging technologies at MCI. "Most businesses have people who need to be connected out of the office, who travel throughout a given geography."

During the next couple of years, MCI will look at supporting wireless tasks beyond basic Wi-Fi data access.

"Were setting the stage for being able to support applications such as voice," Gatesman said. He added that the company is investigating the idea of Wi-Fi/cellular roaming, although MCI is not a cellular carrier.

Gatesman said the company is also working on various billing options for Wi-Fi. Right now, customers pay either a flat rate of $40 per month on top of dial-up services or $8 to $15 on a per-usage basis. The company is looking at a Remote Broadband Access Plus option, which would include Wi-Fi service that is not in the flat rate because of operating expenses, for venues such as airplanes and extremely remote locations.

New hot spots are being added to MCIs Access Manager, client software that lets customers identify available hot spots or, if there arent any, to pick among local dial-up options. The company also offers several encryption protocols. These types of features enable the company to charge for the service, officials said, even though free hot spots are beginning to pop up all over the country. Las Vegas McCarran International Airport offers free Wi-Fi access, for instance. And several retail chains, including Panera Bread Co. and Schlotzskys Ltd., offer free Wi-Fi access in the majority of their locations.

Still, the industry is not expecting free wireless ubiquity any time soon.

"Free Wi-Fi will increase but will not be everywhere," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in San Jose, Calif.

MCIs Wi-Fi expansion

  • Adding 3,400 new U.S. hot-spot locations
  • Currently focusing on business users who drive rather than fly
  • Looking to future support for Wi-Fi on airplanes