If you needed any more confirmation that Wi-Fi (802.11 wireless Internet access) is huge and still growing fast, look no further than today's news about Cometa Networks. It's a venture composed of IBM, AT&T, and three VC firms, one of which is run by Intel. Cometa plans to strew 20,000 Wi-Fi hot spots across the American landscape by the end of 2004 and to make money doing it. That's an effort at least 10 times the size of any hot-spot network now in place (news reports mentioned T-Mobile's 2,000-strong presence in Starbucks, and the smaller players Boingo and Wayport).
Cometa will sell services to ISPs and large carriers and will place hot spots in shopping malls, airports, coffee shops -- all the usual venues. The company will not sell services directly to end users. Several news accounts mentioned Cometa's intention to have a hot spot within a five-minute walk in cities and a five-minute ride in suburbs, in the 50 largest metro areas by year-end 2004. So still no luck if you're looking for Wi-Fi in Watervliet, Mich.
Few scribes managed to dig out any details beyond Cometa's public statements. Given the number and the quality of the diggers, Unspun suspects that Cometa execs were unusually well-prepped and were fanatical about staying on-message. One detail that nobody managed to learn is how much capital is going into Cometa to begin with. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times attempted back-of-the-envelope calculations to estimate how much the company will need to deploy 20,000 hot spots, and came up with minimum figures of $10 million and $40 million respectively.
AT&T will provide the backbone network behind Cometa's service, and IBM will do hot-spot installation, service, and back-end systems. Intel's place in the picture was less immediately clear. The Register and the San Jose Mercury News brought into the picture Intel's planned new mobile chip, code-named Banias. It will have Wi-Fi capability built-in, justifying Cometa CEO Lawrence Brilliant's assertion, quoted in Information Week, that by the time Cometa is deployed, the potential Wi-Fi-enabled population will have grown tenfold.
Cometa's coming-out party caps at least six months of speculation centered around what was at first called Project Rainbow. News.com ran a good background article on this rumor of the big players embracing Wi-Fi when it surfaced last July, and followed up in September. The initial Project Rainbow leaking spoke of involvement by Verizon and Cingular Wireless, in addition to the companies that participated in the Cometa announcement. Of the stories Unspun read, only the AP's speculated that Verizon's separate announcement last month of its intention to sell Wi-Fi to businesses may have represented its backing away from Project Rainbow (and out of Cometa). - Keith Dawson
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