Phone Booths to Cockroaches: the Evolution of the Wireless Hotspot

When this year’s Olympics Committee banned the use of hotspots anywhere near the vicinity of the games, accusations of a wi-fi police state, among other things, spread speculation about the many ways people will try to get their free wireless fix despite limitations. Although the wireless ban was primarily instigated to help avoid issues with broadcast communications across the games, it propelled a press release from wireless operator O2, who had just developed mini-hotspots that allow up to five users to have free, roaming wi-fi. This got me thinking … what other creative tinkerings have been attempted in hotspot development recently?

Those Old Phone Booths

Remember a time when phone booths were not only a dime a dozen, but actually would allow you to call somewhere for a dime? Those days are long gone, as the bulk of these kiosks have disappeared nearly everywhere–at least across the US. Everywhere, that is, except for New York City, where hundreds of phone booths still line the city streets. Partly out of convenience for those who have dead cellphone batteries, partly out of simple nostalgia, telephone companies continue to maintain these booths despite the dismal return.

After attempts to raise prices, tack on fees, and limit call time, New York pay phones have settled in at 25 cents for four minutes. However, the declining demand for these machines have left phone companies needing better ways to market them to paying customers.

Then someone had a brilliant idea, akin to the saying: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” By providing free wireless hotspots atop the phones, phone companies have reclaimed a portion of their turf. Mobile users now huddle near the kiosks enjoying web surfing from their devices, frequently using the pay phones to discuss matters while searching information on their cell phones. While still a new strategy, it has proven to be a creative and worthwhile use for expiring commodities.

Homeless Hotspots Charity

While remaining a controversial idea, wireless company BBH decided to use their wireless technology to encourage people to make donations to homeless individuals. Designed to humanize and create awareness, the company decided to run the campaign during this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. In exchange for a small donation, patrons could use the service provided by a hotspot device carried by homeless volunteers.

Speculation was raised about the ethics of the concept, but generally participants gave donations without using the service. Attention was drawn to the website where people could also make further PayPal donations to that same individual. Whether genuinely considerate or a shallow marketing ploy, many homeless benefitted from the experiment, and there are further plans to run the campaign again in the future.

Wi-Fi Roaches

Ben Epstein, vice president of military contractor OpCoast, has outfitted the Death’s Head Cockroach with a circuit board, radio, and microphone that enables radio surveillance from the creeping bugs for military operations. The “bugs” utilize a micro-network of wi-fi transmissions known as  ZigBeea tiny “mesh network” that has a consumer-focused purpose of networking household appliances.

Based upon ZigBee’s wireless standard, the cockroaches are also capable of transmitting wireless broadcast with other objects that share its network, creating a chain (hence, mesh). Unfortunately this signal is relatively weak, clocking in at about 20-90 kilobits per second. However, should this military experiment go awry and result in thousands of wireless-transmitting cockroaches infesting the city, giving free wireless to everyone, the results would be potentially exciting fallout …

Far-fetched as these ideas are, they’re great representations of the creative ideas that are being implemented in hotspot production. With companies like Google releasing their own internet service Google Fiber, it seems inevitable that more and more companies will attempt creative new methods to enable wi-fi in the strangest of ways. Hopefully the results will be less controversial and squirm-inducing than those covered here!

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